By Rep. Joe Hohenstein
The statistics associated with COVID-19 are startling. Since the onset of the pandemic, the state Department of Health has reported more than 880,000 cases with more than 22,000 lives lost to this deadly virus. A vast majority of the patients and deaths have come from those living and working in long-term care facilities, including seniors and those in the intellectually disabled/autism (ID/A) and recovery communities. These are individuals who have pre-existing conditions and rely on in-person medical services to survive. Along with communities of color, they have felt the impact of COVID-19 the most severely.
In the beginning, when we heard about coronavirus outbreaks, the epicenters were typically in long-term care facilities. My office was inundated with calls from concerned constituents fearful of losing loved ones who lived in these facilities and outraged that not enough was being done to protect them. More than a year later, substantial progress has been made to stifle the spread of COVID-19 with a vaccine now available to help in our fight to build real immunity. However, vaccine distribution has thus far been inefficient, leaving our most vulnerable out in the cold to suffer.
Case-in-point, the Pennsylvania Health Care Association recently said a two-week delay in Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout left residents and front-line workers in long-term care waiting to start receiving doses through the Federal Pharmacy Partnership Program. During those two weeks, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 1,134 resident deaths occurred in Pennsylvania’s nursing homes.
The priority right now must be to make vaccine doses available and accessible to those who need it most. Sadly, that’s not what’s happening. As usual, the disabled and recovery communities are left behind. These groups are part of Phase 1A of Philadelphia’s vaccine distribution plan, but only if they live in congregate settings of 20 or more people. People in recovery programs and members of the ID/A community who live in smaller group homes, or who receive in-home services, are 1B. Their Direct Service Personnel are 1A, but even they have not all been vaccinated. The city and state are moving forward in Phase 1B without making sure to vaccinate all the 1A residents and employees in long-term care facilities and the members of the the recovery and ID/A communities who remain out of the loop. This population has less access to the internet, difficulty in advocating for themselves and barriers to communication that are keeping them from getting the vaccine they deserve.
I appreciate the uphill battle Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administrations have had to endure over the past year, and I support the state Health Department’s latest action to improve vaccine accessibility to seniors by requiring providers to administer 80 percent of their first doses within a week after they receive them. We cannot waste vaccines, but there must be accountability for the missteps made pertaining to our most vulnerable populations who have lost their lives and suffered the brunt of neglect and mismanagement during this pandemic. We must circle back to make sure we have covered all of them.
COVID-19 has taken a substantial toll on both our physical and mental health. In long-term care facilities, the vaccine is a symbol of hope that progress is being made. We all want to return to the normalcy that will allow residents to have physical contact with friends and family that they’ve been yearning for since this all started.
Moving forward, I am committed to giving our vulnerable populations a voice by calling on my colleagues in Harrisburg to implement policies and pass laws in a bipartisan fashion and provide the necessary resources to improve the safety for caregivers and residents at our long-term care facilities at a time they need it most.
Lives are on the line, so don’t jump the line. Pennsylvanians are counting on us to get this right. We can’t let them down. ••
Rep. Joe Hohenstein, a Democrat, represents the 177th Legislative District, which includes portions of the Northeast and River Wards.