As the number of Americans critically ill from coronavirus mounts, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it’s the oldest among us who are most vulnerable.
Among the most recent deaths reported in the United States were a 69-year-old man, a man and a woman, each in their 70s, and another woman in her 80s. Their deaths reflect a wider story that those tracking the lethality of this new disease are just beginning to understand – in the fight against COVID-19, the younger fare far better than the old.
Early research by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that the fatality rate of this new disease differs widely by age. For those confirmed cases between the ages of 10 and 39, only 0.2 percent die. For those 80 or older, the fatality rate is 14.8 percent.
So while health care workers in hospitals and clinics may be the first line of defense for those feeling ill, it is the social workers and caregivers in our nursing homes and long-term care centers who are truly on the front lines of this outbreak. And yet, our national response has all but ignored this critical community.
To redress our oversight, we must work immediately to integrate social workers and long-term care providers into our overall response to the outbreak. Social workers are the ones who will be able to identify those most at risk, who can alert authorities at the first sign of a patient falling ill, and who can pinpoint the patients who are likely to have the most severe and fatal reactions to COVID-19.
Beyond simply linking social workers to the wider effort, we must also ensure that they have the knowledge, training and equipment to deliver immediate care for those in need – including the protective equipment in such scarce supply today. Without such equipment, social workers risk spreading infections to other patients and are at serious risk themselves as they move about facilities where the scope of the outbreak may not yet be fully understood.
Now that testing kits are becoming increasingly available across the United States, long-term care facilities across the country and especially in communities with known cases should be the first among those to receive them. When a medical solution becomes available, we must prioritize these facilities as well, as they are home to the most vulnerable among us.
History has taught us how critically important social workers can be in the face of a public health epidemic. They were the messengers who first warned us about the spread of tuberculosis in Victorian slums. They were the ones to first understand and advocate for AIDS patients in the earliest years of the epidemic. Today, they are the ones who can help us push back the boundaries of this epidemic and help prevent it from spreading across our country.