COVID-19 and Pa. seniors: Two experts tell you what you need to know

(Image via pxHere.com)

If there’s one message that’s been driven home again and again as Pennsylvania contends with the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that older adults and people with compromised immune systems are the most at-risk for contracting it.

During a telephone town hall on Wednesday, two experts offered tips and advice for seniors, their families, and their friends as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow statewide. The event was convened by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District.

The number of confirmed cases in Pennsylvania grew to 133 statewide at midday Wednesday, as state health officials confirmed 37 new cases. COVID-19 is now present in 18 counties across the state, including Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pike, Lehigh and York counties.

“If you’ve had a common cold, there’s a good chance you’ve had a coronavirus,” Lisa Rochia, the vice president of Clinical and Support Services at Country Meadows Retirement Communities, which has locations across the state, said. “The new strain is COVID-19, that strain never transmitted to humans before. We don’t have antibodies built up, and don’t have vaccination. It’s a very contagious bug.”

Rochia, who was on Wednesday’s call, said the state’s residential care community is doing all it can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

“Right now, aggressive prevention is the best weapon we have,” she said. “It’s really what we’re trying to do right now while we’re all hunkered down and not going places.”

Among those steps, she said is restricting visitation to care facilities, a policy that she said is “evolving” as the number of cases expands and the outbreak becomes more severe.

37 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 as statewide total climbs to 133

Initially, “we all posted signs on our doors that funneled visitors to one entrance, when we were allowing visitations,” she said. Now that visits have been cut off, exceptions are only allowed in special cases, such as when someone is approaching the “very end of life.”

Social distancing requirements have also prompted caregivers to change the activities they provide within their facilities. Large group activities are out.

“We need to keep our residents away from each other. At our facility, we’re implementing live videos. We’re trying to keep [residents] in small groups,” she said.

Caregivers are also trying to keep families in the loop with constant communication, she said.

“We have websites where we update. We’re all helping each other to do the best we can for our residents,” she said. “Their health and well-being is our No. 1 priority.”

COVID-19 in Pa.: With one confirmed case, how is Erie County handling and preparing for the outbreak?

Similar changes are also taking place among physicians who treat older Pennsylvanians, said Dr. David Gasperack, the vice president and regional medical director of WellSpan Medical Group, which has facilities in York County.

“Today we are one community with one goal: Working together with our friends and neighbors in this uncertain time,” Gasperack, who was on the call, said. “WellSpan is prepared and developed a response, including an active testing program.

There are “open-air testing tents at each of our member hospitals. If you show up – you will be evaluated, tested and screened in the tent,” he said, adding that such as an approach “limits the potential spread of the disease,” and, critically, keeps it out of hospitals.

And that means, for instance, that if someone suspects they have symptoms, they need to call their provider and not just show up at their doctor’s office or the emergency room. That’s so medical professionals can “direct you to the appropriate care setting.”

“Instinctively, people want to go to their [primary care physician] or the emergency room,” he said. “Call first, so we can triage you to the place where you need care.”

In response to a question from one town hall participant, Gasperack amplified those comments, saying people should not come in unless they’re exhibiting symptoms. A temperature in excess of 100.4 degrees, he said, is a good barometer.

“Our fear is that if you come in early, and you test negative,” that people won’t exercise appropriate caution. “If you’re exposed to a confirmed person, please stay home. Don’t come in unless you exhibit symptoms.”

And when it comes to older adults, many of whom live alone, or don’t get out as much, basic compassion and empathy goes a long way.

“Seniors are isolated and alone- may have anxiety. The most important thing to do, is do not visit them. We don’t want to inadvertently transmit the virus by visiting. We may have been exposed and not even known it,” Rochia said. “FaceTime and phone calls will help. They may be frightened and worried about things.”

John L. Micek
John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad.