Coronavirus concerns in underserved communities grow

Ostrowsky says there are more vulnerable people out there than we tend to describe or define. Here’s how N.J. is helping

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Mar 19, 2020 at 1:05 pm

All reporting on COVID-19 has correctly stated that seniors are the most vulnerable among us to contract the virus. But they’re not the only vulnerable segment of the population.

Another vulnerable population may be those in underserved communities who were already facing serious health crises. They shouldn’t be overlooked, RWJBarnabas Health CEO Barry Ostrowsky said.

“One of the things this is uncovering, it’s almost a blinding glimpse, just how vulnerable certain layers of the society are to these kinds of economic times,” he said. “So, all the discussion that we’ve had about social impact, all the discussions we’ve had about how do we really add to the health of our communities, not simply clinically, but socially and through economic development, I think we’re seeing that right now.

“It’s a crisis time and there’s a bit of hysteria, but the truth is, there are more vulnerable people out there than we tend to describe or define. And that very much is at the base of what we’re trying to accomplish. So, if nothing else, it’s reinforced for us that there’s a lot of work to be done.

“I don’t know that we can undertake the kind of work that needs to be done, but, clearly there is a whole bunch of society out there that needs help beyond simply masks and an emergency department.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said serving that population is of great concern to him, too. He brought Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson to his Wednesday briefing and spoke on the subject.

“There are many communities across our state who rely upon the department and their direct care provider-partners for daily life,” Murphy said. “Many of these residents are considered especially vulnerable to coronavirus. It is imperative that we do not disconnect them from their lifelines during this emergency.

“We are taking extraordinary steps to support those who need protect these services, and these critical service providers — whether that be extending emergency financial support for families in our subsidy program who are relying on child care during this emergency, ensuring providers in our child care subsidy program are paid if they close, or providing greater access to cleaning and sanitizing supplies.”

This community tends to use emergency departments as their general physician. And, even though all have been urged to not go to hospitals first, Ostrowsky knows that they will. And he said his team is prepared to handle the need.

“The Newark Beth Israel Medical Center emergency department was seeing record numbers of patients before the virus really presented itself as it has now,” he said. “And, of course, this has complicated that to a great extent because people are accessing it simply out of fear.”

The increase in visits further exacerbates the crisis situation in ERs because the time of each visit has been extended, Ostrowsky said.

“If you’re going to do it right, it takes longer and requires more resources to even interact with someone who may have the virus,” he said. “So, in addition with the ever-increasing demand and volume, the throughput has become slower with respect to treating patients with the virus.

“As far as I’m concerned, and I’ve always felt this way, you’re never going to do away with emergency departments and they’re always going to attract probably more patients that need to go to them because there is a strong feeling of security and safety and the like.”

Murphy said the state is determined to do all it can.

“To be clear, we consider home health aides and other direct support professionals to be an essential part of our emergency response team,” he said. “They are first responders within our health care system for many in these communities, and we thank them.”

Johnson said the Division of Family Development will implement the following policies, effective immediately:

  • Make grants available for child-care providers who participate in the child-care subsidy program to clean and sanitize their facility or home — or to purchase supplies or services necessary to keep centers and homes sanitary;
  • Continue to pay child-care providers for an extended period of time encouraged for those required to close by the health department, school district or county executive related to COVID-19;
  • Waive subsidy copayments for parents and caregivers who request it due to impacts from COVID-19;
  • Provide child-care providers who remain open a differential of $100 per child each month above the state reimbursed rate for children enrolled in the child-care subsidy program;
  • Compensate providers who remain open even if children are absent due to COVID-19;
  • Give extended time to working parents to submit verification of works hours for the initial application process — as well as allowing parents or caregivers to continue their child-care subsidy if their hours are reduced or if they are laid off due to COVID-19;
  • Extend recertification timelines for at least three months in order for child-care services to remain open.

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