Written by Cara Chapman in the Press-Republican on May 13, 2020
PLATTSBURGH — North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) took questions from AARP members during a tele-town hall Tuesday morning, and the focus was largely in nursing homes.
Jefferson County Office for the Aging Director Chris Ingersoll and Essex County Director of Public Health Linda Beers were also special guests at the virtual event, hosted by AARP New York State Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy David McNally.
Topics covered included nursing homes, food programs, testing and direct aid to state and local governments.
With regard to seniors, Stefanik said, the focus has also been on increased testing capacity in nursing homes as well as pressing New York State for transparency about positive tests in those facilities.
She added that the whole New York Congressional delegation was working to provide resources for the purchase of personal protective equipment for nursing homes and to help address staffing issues.
The congresswoman said she was cosponsoring the Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act, which would provide additional funding for nursing homes to expand access to telehealth and allow for virtual visits between residents and loved ones.
Beers noted that Essex County has been working closely with nursing homes to test every resident and staff member, an initiative that was wrapping up Tuesday.
Answering a question on behalf of AARP New York, Stefanik said she and her colleagues would support the critical needs of nursing home residents, staff and their families in the next COVID-19 relief package.
She and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to prioritize funding for these facilities, especially those in COVID-19 hot spots.
The state’s initial order that mandated nursing homes must admit or re-admit COVID-19-positive patients was “a fatal mistake,” Stefanik said.
She commended county public health offices on their efforts to address this vulnerable population.
“We are committed to increasing that testing capacity, both the workers and the nursing home residents, twice per week.”
Questions came up regarding whether everyone should get tested since so many people are asymptomatic, and when testing will be available for everyone.
Beers noted drive-through testing in Ticonderoga and Elizabethtown through University of Vermont Health Network, Elizabethtown Community Hospital.
Those options are available by appointment to people who are symptomatic, were exposed to a suspected or confirmed case-patient or who need a negative result in order to return to work, according to the hospital’s website.
Stefanik said she and state elected officials have prioritized ensuring upstate New York gets the testing kits it needs, in part to make sure these regions meet the state’s criteria for testing.
In creating a regional approach to reopening, the state grouped together counties by Regional Economic Development Council delineations, and required that they meet seven metrics, including testing requirements, before they can commence Phase 1 beginning May 15.
Beers said Essex County received 1,000 test kits Monday.
She plans to first support any nursing home resident or staff testing, then her department will “look to increase testing capabilities by potentially going out into the community and setting up points of distribution.”
That would entail “free testing with very little restrictions just to get a good sense of our health and where we stand,” Beers said.
Food programs across the district are seeing an increased need, Stefanik said.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allotted $450 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
“That goes to increasing purchases and distribution via community partners such as food banks,” Stefanik said.
She added that New York is one of the states that already participates in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) online purchasing pilot, which could be expanded to more retailers statewide.
The state’s Congressional delegation believes it is incredibly important that future federal funds to counties and municipalities does not have a population cutoff, like previous funding did, Stefanik said.
“We want to make sure that rural counties … qualify for that direct federal aid,” she continued.
“It’s not only important for our county public health offices, but it’s important for law enforcement, for our school districts, for our BOCES programs.”
Stefanik believes that, in the coming weeks, there will be a bipartisan package that incorporates robust funding for state and local governments.
She added that, to date, Congress has provided $7.5 billion in direct funding to New York State.
Later on Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which includes almost $1 trillion in aid to states, localities, tribal governments and territories.
A Saranac Lake resident asked if it would be possible for people who are unemployed as a result of COVID-19 to be offered positions as contact tracers.
Beers said Essex County has 10 total trained contact tracers, and that the state has started an initiative through which people can get paid to do the job.
“The only way that I know to do that is to apply personally.”
She added that the link was advertised and sent to people who had offered to volunteer, including Essex County’s medical reserve corps (MRC) members.
People in these positions must work a minimum of 20 hours weekly, and may be assigned to counties throughout the state, Beers said.
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