Gotham Gazette

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City Closes Hundreds of Senior Centers, But Will Provide Meals to Aging Population Especially Vulnerable to Coronavirus

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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that all senior centers in the city will be closing in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, to vulnerable populations.

“We will be closing our senior centers, ending all programming there with the exception of activities related to food. We will turn them into feeding centers, again, focused on grab-and-go, meaning pickup of meals for those seniors for whom that works,” de Blasio said during a press conference Sunday, when he also announced the closure of city schools for at least five weeks, among other drastic measures to help contain the virus and its impacts.

“They'll all primarily be locations for preparing and delivering meals to seniors’ homes,” the mayor continued. “So instead of being a place for seniors to go to eat meals in the senior center, they'll become a dispensary to get quality meals out to seniors, whether it's by delivery or by pickup, but we will no longer have any programming in our senior centers.”

The city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) oversees “230 neighborhood senior centers, 16 innovative senior centers, and 39 sites affiliated with senior centers” across the city and has 1,393 contracts with agency providers to deliver services, many of which provide meals, according to budget documents.

DFTA’s senior centers serve nearly 30,000 individuals each day, and provide meals, recreational, health promotion and cultural activities, according to the department’s 2019 Annual Plan Summary.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified individuals over 50, and those with illnesses such as cancer, lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system at high risk of contracting the disease. Early data also suggests that “older people are twice as likely to have serious COVID-19 illness.”

New York City continues to see increases in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the function of both more testing and community spread of the disease. There are more than 900 confirmed cases and more than ten deaths, through Tuesday afternoon, with many of those infected and the majority killed over 50 years old.

The United States, New York State, and New York City have all declared states of emergency in an effort to increase resources available to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent our hospital system from becoming overwhelmed. With this state of emergency has come a worldwide call to action wherein individuals are being asked to practice “social distancing,” and several official measures taken to encourage it, like the shutdown of restaurants to takeout/delivery-only, closure of movie theaters, and so on.

Even those who are asymptomatic or don’t have the virus are being told to stay home as much as possible and keep a safe distance from others to prevent coronavirus from spreading, and especially to prevent the spread to vulnerable populations, such as seniors. Other measures include the school closures and major limits if not bans on visits to nursing homes populated by seniors, many of them with health problems that make them even more susceptible to the impact of the virus.

The state announced that starting March 13, “only medically necessary visits will be allowed in nursing homes,” and has asked nursing homes to set up online communication capacity for families to be able to interact with their loved ones. Staff have regular interaction with vulnerable New Yorkers, and in order to protect seniors all workers in nursing homes are required to undergo health screening each day and wear surgical masks.

“That's the reason why we're closing the schools,” said New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Oxiris Barbot at a press availability March 15. “That's the reason why we're telling people not to go to work if they can telecommute, because we want people to have more distance from each other...we want to reduce the number of New Yorkers that get infected, and as importantly, if not more importantly, we want to reduce the number of New Yorkers who are at risk for bad health outcomes such as needing to end up in the hospital, in the ICU, or God forbid dying because of this. And it's a real reality.”

On March 6, the City Council held a budget hearing on the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) scheduled to discuss the agency’s overall work and the mayor’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, but the discussion was dominated by questions about COVID-19.

During the hearing, DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez responded to questions about DFTA’s response to the virus saying, “I have the utmost confidence that the mayor is going to do all he can and has made it very clear that this is a priority and that resources will be made available to combat this disease.”

Last week, the Mayor's Office of Engagement along with DFTA were planning to go to over 600 congregate sites to ensure information about the virus was being disseminated and city guidelines adhered to. As of Monday, however, all senior centers are closed, except for meal delivery purposes.

“To ensure that older New Yorkers who rely on daily congregate meals are not faced with food insecurity, senior centers will operate strictly to provide take-home meals to older adults,” Suzanne Myklebust, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “For older adults who are unable to pick-up their daily congregate meal, they can ask their senior center to have their meal delivered instead.”

“We are working closely with our network of providers to allow them to determine arrangements for meal pick-up and if they require any additional support,” Mykleburst said. “In an effort to provide additional support, we have continued a partnership with Citymeals on Wheels to further assist senior centers in the provision of meals to their clients during this closure. This week, 96,000 shelf-stable meals will be provided to the senior centers for distribution to their members.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated with additional info on nursing home regulations.

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