Expanded testing, mental health support for frontline healthcare workers and grants to help long-term care facilities with infection control are among the recommendations made by a regional task force looking into ways to safely resume life in the Northeast.
The COVID-19 Regional Recovery Task Force, a bipartisan group formed by U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Pete King (R-NY), has been working to identify steps the federal government can take to help move the region forward.
On May 12, the task force released a report following its discussion with Dr. David Relman, a professor of medicine and immunology at Stanford University, and Andy Slavitt, the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“A comprehensive strategy that includes wider testing, supporting healthcare workers and stopping transmission in particular hotspots will go a long way towards preparing the environment for reopening and ensuring resilience in the face of any future outbreaks,” the task force wrote.
In a press release, Sherrill said the experts “emphasized the importance of scaling our efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 to safely reopen the economy.”
The discussions, King said, “reinforced our belief that the Northeast region must address the pandemic with a coordinated effort and that effort must be aggressively supported by the federal government.”
Increased Testing Capacity
In order to reach both symptomatic and asymptomatic people, the U.S. needs to conduct 5 million tests daily and increase to 20 million per day by the summer. Right now, about 7 million tests total have been administered, at a rate of 150,000 to 200,000 each day, the report found.
New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman said, “We need to increase our testing capacities immediately.”
The task force believes the federal government can play a role in establishing standards for manufacturers, identifying opportunities for generic testing supplies and addressing latent testing capacity.
“Companies that produce testing equipment and supplies are unlikely to change on their own, and so there is an important role for the federal government to play in strategizing how testing can be scaled in coordination with manufacturers, regulatory agencies, and laboratories,” the report said.
Watson Coleman said once more tests are available, a plan for equitable distribution and deployment needs to be developed that will focus on “the severity of need without regard to race or wealth.”
“While we are ramping up testing kit and vaccine production, we need to build a strong data system, that allows us to test the population regularly and have a standard way to collect, manage, and analyze data to leverage contact tracing efficiently,” she added.
Making sure healthcare workers have personal protective equipment and places outside of their homes to isolate, as well as access to mental health support is key to protecting those on the frontlines of the pandemic, the report said.
A recent study showed hospital workers “have a high risk of experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.” It found half of Chinese healthcare workers who treated infected patients earlier this year now suffer from depression. Nearly as many – 44.6% – have anxiety and a third have insomnia.
The task force’s report said Congress should “devote the resources necessary to ensure” healthcare personnel “stay both physically and psychologically healthy,” especially as the country “prepares for a potential resurgence” of COVID-19 cases.
Infection Control Measures
With about a third of U.S. coronavirus-related deaths linked to nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the report calls for “immediate federal support.”
In about a dozen states, including New Jersey, they account for more than half of all deaths from the virus.
Nursing home residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are a high-risk population when it comes to contracting or dying from coronavirus. .
Long-Term Care Facilities
Not only are residents vulnerable because of their age and tendency to have underlying conditions, but they also live in close quarters and are cared for by staffers who visit multiple rooms.
“Entire populations of residents are dying of COVID-19 due to a persistent lack of infection control measures—personal protective equipment, isolation spaces, training and testing for residents and staff,” the task force’s report said.
One way to help, the report said, is the creation of a federal grant program for non-for-profit facilities – or those that accept a portion of Medicaid patients – to help mitigate current outbreaks and improve infection control.
The task force, founded in April, is made up of representatives from some of the Northeast states hit hardest by COVID-19 and plans to address the needs of the region as officials prepare to ease shelter-in-place orders and reopen the economy.
By working with experts in key fields, the group said it will support legislation aimed at getting people back to work safely and answering critical questions in the coming weeks and months.