When the pandemic broke out nearly three years ago, older Americans were vulnerable.
They still are today.
Since 2020, people 65 and over have comprised over 75% of COVID-related deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those between age 65 and 74 are roughly five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than those between 18 and 29; the rate rises to nearly nine times as likely for those 75 to 84, and 15 times as likely for those 85 and older.
“There continue to be very high costs of COVID,” Dr. Julia Raifman, leader of the Health Inequities Strategic Research area at the Boston University School of Public Health, tells The New York Times.
At the outset of the pandemic, COVID-19 swept through nursing homes as they became the epicenter for massive outbreaks. In March 2020, I distinctly remember a concerned call from an investigative reporter and past professor of mine, as she scoured daily news updates only to see how quickly cases rose in senior communities.
In March 2020, I worked with a team led by my professor to document the nursing home outbreaks along with the heartbreaking accounts from families who lost loved ones. Months of reporting led us to understand that institutions meant to protect seniors were failing them—and the family members left behind felt as if their relatives were reduced to nothing more than a number spread across a news screen.
Fast forward to vaccine rollouts and isolation measures rolled back—people began to resume their so-called normal lives. However, with sub variants dominating the scene and becoming more immune evasive, along with low national vaccination rates, seniors are still at high risk.
As the New York Times reports, seniors and their families continue to feel the fallout, whether from the repercussions of facing severe illness or the constant avoidance of normal life due to fear of contracting the virus.
How to protect the most vulnerable
So what obligation is there to protect those still vulnerable? In the early days of the pandemic, many businesses instituted “senior hours,” where older Americans could shop in a safer, more isolated environment, the New York Times reports. However, those accommodations are no longer commonplace.
“Public spaces are not accessible to people concerned about infections,” Raifman tells the New York Times.
However, Raifman says there is a “middle ground,” which doesn’t turn the world upside down again. For those seniors who still want to take precautions, it means creating spaces where they can engage with others, complete their errands and enjoy life in a way that feels right for them. Public spaces could create specified times allotted for masking or social-distancing, for example.
“We can mitigate transmissions in smart and inclusive ways,” Raifman tells the New York Times.
For others, it can look like taking precautions when feeling ill. It means avoiding the idea that you must push through and work when sick only to infect those who may be more vulnerable to severe illness than you. “It becomes socially acceptable and, in fact very, very encouraged for people to say, ‘I’m not feeling well’ and ‘I can’t come to work,’” Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist with The University of Michigan, previously told Fortune.
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