BY SEATTLE MAYOR JENNY A. DURKAN
Seattle was the initial epicenter of COVID-19, and our community – especially older adults – were the first to be hit by the disease, with devastating impacts. However, our residents that are over 55 have also led the way in changing behaviors to bend the curve and have proven their resiliency and strength through the challenge of a lifetime.
Nine months after our region’s first case, Seattle has the fewest cases and hospitalizations of any major city. In the early days of the pandemic, we created widespread access to testing, focused especially on our long-term care facilities where we saw the highest number of cases and deadly consequences.
And Seattle led the nation in creating programs that support older adults with meals and grocery vouchers, rental assistance, and a moratorium on evictions.
But life has changed dramatically for our residents, magnified by the other challenges of 2020 like wildfire smoke and the stress of the election. Our older residents are isolated from the ones they love especially around the holidays, fearful of surging cases across our state and nation, impacted by job losses for individuals continuing to work, and navigating more complexity with children and aging parents in their lives.
Government must be a partner in helping our community and older adults weather this pandemic. It is our collective responsibility to protect older people from the virus and to ensure their needs are being met – for meals, health care, medication, and safe interaction with others.
Our older adults are most at risk for this virus. We ask a lot of our residents to mask up, to keep your distance, to limit gatherings, and to work from home because those actions are the difference between protecting our neighbors and losing our loved ones. Nearly 270,000 lives have been lost nationwide, and we are at risk of losing hundreds of thousands more family members.
I’m buoyed by the many stories of resiliency and compassion from health care workers, nurses, and first responders.
Our Seattle firefighters have been on the frontlines of this pandemic putting their lives at risk and see firsthand the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths occurring at our long-term care facilities.
In March and April, nearly half of COVID-19 related deaths were associated with long–term care facilities, and 92 percent of deaths were individuals who are older than 60. In those early days, with limited testing supplies and guidance, our first responders pioneered wide-scale testing at our long-term care facilities.
In Seattle, there are nearly 200 skilled nursing, assisted living, and adult family homes with approximately 6,550 residents and 4,000 workers. Our firefighters tested thousands of health care workers and residents before wide-scale testing was adopted anywhere else, and their actions saved lives. They now have expanded their work to test all residents in our community at free citywide testing sites and have done more than 425,000 tests.
All these efforts are working, and the percentage of cases in the older population has decreased in cities like Seattle.
But we know our most vulnerable residents need continued protection and relief, especially from the federal government. In Seattle, we have pioneered new programs to provide cash relief, meals and groceries, and recreation. Our food and meal assistance programs have shifted to pick up, delivery and takeout to meet the emergent need as the pandemic continues. We are providing utility and rental assistance. And we’ve created new public spaces to allow residents and families to have open, safe and healthy streets across the city to walk and bike in addition to virtual recreation programs and coffee hours.
In 2021, there is hope on the horizon. We can and will get through this immensely challenging year. A vaccine – which must be prioritized for older adults - will allow us to resume our normal activities with friends and celebrations with loved ones. At every level of government, we must work to safely and equitably distribute in the coming months while continuing to protect the public health of our communities.
As we look to the future, we can also emerge as a more resilient and equitable country – one that builds opportunity and protects key programs in health care, meals, housing, savings and retirement - for all generations.