Justice in Aging is calling for the immediate adoption of aggressive social distancing measures to save the lives of older adults at risk of contracting COVID-19. As the country is now in a state of national emergency, states have a wider array of options to address this crisis. But this alone is not enough. There are additional changes that we all must make in our lives if we truly value the older adults in our families and communities.
The data is clear that older adults are at particular risk of becoming ill and dying from COVID-19, with mortality rates being reported as high as 18% for people age 80 and over. If we are not able to contain the virus, the consequences for older adults will be tragic with the most harm coming to those living in poverty, those from immigrant communities, communities of color, and rural communities who experience barriers to health care and social services. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk.
In the face of the risk the virus poses to older adults, it is undeniable that our response has been woefully inadequate to date.
Public health experts are now clear that the only way to save the lives of older adults is to “flatten the curve” to slow the spread of the virus and ensure our health system is equipped to provide treatment to those most at risk. This requires drastic measures at this point including, canceling or postponing all large public gatherings and closing indefinitely public institutions, including schools, until public health authorities determine that it is safe to resume these activities. For families with older adults and for older adults on their own, it may be necessary to take even more drastic measures, including cancelling outings and smaller gatherings.
We applaud the growing number of individuals, organizations, corporations, sports leagues, school districts, and local and state governments that are finally taking more aggressive action to save the lives of older adults. We also welcome the news that the Administration has declared a national emergency. More action, however, is needed. Federal, state and local governments must issue immediate and clear directives requiring social distancing in places where these restrictions are not yet in place. Every day we delay enacting social distancing measures significantly increases the risk that older adults face.
We recognize that social distancing measures like these will have profound and negative economic impacts on working families and children. That’s why we are also calling for federal, state, and local governments to provide economic protections and relief to individuals impacted by these measures. Relief must include, at a minimum, sick and family medical leave, emergency unemployment insurance, eviction protections, and increased food assistance as well as investments in Medicaid, Medicare, and our health care system to ensure access to needed testing and treatment. Social distancing also has the potential to worsen social isolation among older adults, particularly since they are taking even more precautions to limit exposure, requiring additional investment in Older Americans Act-funded and other programs that can respond to this growing need.
We can and must take these steps as individuals and as a community to do what is necessary to protect the lives of older adults in our families and communities during this crisis.