Memorial Day: Why veterans are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic

Memorial Day: Why veterans are particularly vulnerable to the ...

As the nation takes a day to memorialize its military dead, those who are living are facing a deadly risk that has nothing to do with war or conflict: the coronavirus.

Different groups face different degrees of danger from the pandemic, from the elderly who are experiencing deadly outbreaks in nursing homes to communities of color with higher infection and death rates. Veterans are among the most hard-hit, with heightened health and economic threats from the pandemic. These veterans face homelessness, lack of health care, delays in receiving financial support and even death.

I have spent the past four years studying veterans with substance use and mental health disorders who are in the criminal justice system. This work revealed gaps in health care and financial support for veterans, even though they have the best publicly funded benefits in the country.

Here are eight ways the pandemic threatens veterans:

1. Age and other vulnerabilities

In 2017, veterans’ median age was 64, their average age was 58 and 91% were male. The largest group served in the Vietnam era, where 2.8 million veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant linked to cancer.

Younger veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to dust storms, oil fires and burn pits with numerous toxins, and perhaps as a consequence have high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Age and respiratory illnesses are both risk factors for COVID-19 mortality. As of May 22, there have been 12,979 people under Veterans Administration care with COVID-19, of whom 1,100 have died.

2. Dangerous residential facilities

Veterans needing end-of-life care, those with cognitive disabilities or those needing substance use treatment often live in crowded VA or state-funded residential facilities.

State-funded “soldiers’ homes” are notoriously starved for money and staff. The horrific situation at the soldiers’ home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where more than 79 veteran residents have died from a COVID-19 outbreak, illustrates the risk facing the veterans in residential homes.

3. Benefits unfairly denied

When a person transitions from active military service to become a veteran, they receive a Certificate of Discharge or Release. This certificate provides information about the circumstances of the discharge or release. It includes characterizations such as “honorable,” “other than honorable,” “bad conduct” or “dishonorable.” These are crucial distinctions, because that status determines whether the Veterans Administration will give them benefits.

Research shows that some veterans with discharges that limit their benefits have PTSD symptoms, military sexual trauma or other behaviors related to military stress. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately more of these negative discharges than veterans from other eras, for reasons still unclear.

VA hospitals across the country are short-staffed and don’t have the resources they need to protect their workers. AP/Kathy Willens

The Veterans Administration frequently and perhaps unlawfully denies benefits to veterans with “other than honorable” discharges.

Many veterans have requested upgrades to their discharge status. There is a significant backlog of these upgrade requests, and the pandemic will add to it, further delaying access to health care and other benefits.

4. Diminished access to health care

Dental surgery, routine visits and elective surgeries at Veterans Administration medical centers have been postponed since mid-March. VA hospitals are understaffed – just before the pandemic, the VA reported 43,000 staff vacancies out of more than 400,000 health care staff positions. Access to health care will be even more difficult when those medical centers finally reopen because they may have far fewer workers than they need.

As of May 4, 2020, 2,250 VA health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and thousands of health care workers are under quarantine. The VA is asking doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to help already understaffed hospitals.

5. Mental health may get worse

An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. A national task force is currently addressing this scourge.

But many outpatient mental health programs are on hold or being held virtually. Some residential mental health facilities have closed.

Under these conditions, the suicide rate for veterans may grow. Suicide hotline calls by veterans were up by 12% on March 22, just a few weeks into the crisis.

6. Complications for homeless veterans and those in the justice system

An estimated 45,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and 181,500 veterans are in prison or jail. Thousands more are under court-supervised substance use and mental health treatment in veterans treatment courtsMore than half of veterans involved with the justice system have either mental health problems or substance use disorders.

As residential facilities close to new participants, many veterans eligible to leave prison or jail have nowhere to go. They may stay incarcerated or become homeless.

Courts have moved online or ceased formal operations altogether, meaning no veteran charged with a crime can be referred to a treatment court. It is unclear whether those who were already participating in a treatment program will face delays graduating from court-supervised treatments.

Further, some veterans treatment courts still require participants to take drug tests. With COVID-19 circulating, those participants must put their health at risk to travel to licensed testing facilities.

As veterans’ facilities close to new participants, many veterans eligible to leave prison or jail have nowhere to go and may become homeless, like this Navy veteran in Los Angeles. Getty/Mario Tama

7. Disability benefits delayed

In the pandemic’s epicenter in New York, tens of thousands of veterans should have access to VA benefits because of their low income – but don’t, so far.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing delays in finding veterans in need, filing their paperwork and waiting for decisions. Ryan Foley, an attorney in New York’s Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit legal services organization, noted in a personal communication that these benefits are worth “tens of millions of dollars to veterans and their families” in the midst of a health and economic disaster.

All 56 regional Veterans Administration offices are closed to encourage social distancing. Compensation and disability evaluations, which determine how much money veterans can get, are usually done in person. Now, they must be done electronically, via telehealth services in which the veteran communicates with a health care provider via computer.

But getting telehealth up and running is taking time, adding to the longstanding VA backlog. Currently, more than 100,000 veterans wait more than 125 days for a decision. (That is what the VA defines as a backlog – anything less than 125 days is not considered a delay on benefit claims.)

8. Economic catastrophe

There are 1.2 million veteran employees in the five industries most severely affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

A disproportionately high number of post-9/11 veterans live in some of the hardest-hit communities that depend on these industries. Veterans returning from overseas will face a dire economic landscape, with far fewer opportunities to integrate into civilian life with financial security.

In addition, severely disabled veterans living off of VA benefits were initially required to file a tax return to get stimulus checks. This initial filing requirement delayed benefits for severely disabled veterans by at least a month. The IRS finally changed the requirements after public outcry, given that many older and severely disabled veterans do not have access to computers or the technological skills to file electronically.

There are many social groups to pay attention to, all with their own problems to face during the pandemic. With veterans, many of the problems they face now existed long before the coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores.

But with the challenges posed by the situation today, veterans who were already lacking adequate benefits and resources are now in deeper trouble, and it will be harder to answer their needs.





Employers seeking a “source of truth” for coronavirus guidance

What Is Truth? | Psychology Today

As states begin to reopen, employers need guidance to ensure safe, COVID-free operations, and are beginning to call local health systems for advice on how to manage this daunting task. Providing this support is uncharted territory for most systems, and they’re learning on the fly as they bring back shuttered outpatient services and surgery centers themselves. This week we convened leaders from across our Gist Healthcare membership to share ideas on how to assist employers in bringing businesses safely back online—and to discuss whether the pandemic might create broader opportunities for working with the employer community.

It’s no surprise some companies are hoping that providers can step in to test their full workforce, but as several systems shared, “Even if we thought that was the right plan, testing supplies and PPE are still too limited for us to deliver on it now.” Better to support businesses in creating comprehensive screening strategies (with some offering their own app-based solutions), coupled with a testing plan for symptomatic employees.

Health systems have been surprised by the hunger for information on COVID-19 among the business community. Hundreds of companies have registered for informational webinars, hosted by systems through their local chambers of commerce. They’re excited to receive distilled information on local COVID-19 impact and response. As one leader said, the system isn’t really creating new educational content, but rather summarizing and synthesizing CDC, state and local guidance.

Business leaders are looking for “a source of truth” from their local health system amid conflicting guidelines and media reports. Case in point: employers are asking about the need for antibody testing, having been approached by testing vendors and feeling pressure from employees. Guidance from system doctors provides a plain-spoken interpretation on testing utility (great for looking at a population, meaningless right now for an individual), and helps them make smarter decisions and educate their workforce.

Health systems are hopeful that helping employers through the coronavirus crisis will lay the foundation for longer-term partnerships with employers, allowing them to continue to provide benefits through lower cost, coordinated care and network options. 

Timing is critical, and it may be smaller businesses that have the ability to change more quickly. Large companies have mostly locked in their benefits for 2021, whereas many mid-market businesses are looking for alternative options now.

Worksite health, telemedicine, and direct primary care arrangements are all on the table. One system surveyed local brokers and employers and found that 20 percent of mid-market employers are open to narrow-network partnerships. “The number seems low,” they reported, “but it’s up from five percent last year, a huge jump.” For systems seeking direct partnerships with employers, there’s a window of opportunity right now to find those businesses committed to continuing to offer benefits, who are looking for a creative, local alternative—and to get that first Zoom meeting on the calendar.




Further confusion on the coronavirus testing front

Coronavirus test: confusion over availability and criteria is ...

With all 50 states now in the process of reopening, data reported by public health agencies on coronavirus testing is under increased scrutiny. The issue is not how many tests are being conducted—that number has dramatically increased nationwide (although experts still caution that total testing should be about three times higher than the current 300,000 per day).

Rather, as reported this week, the issue is what kind of tests are being included in public reporting. It emerged this week that several states—including GeorgiaTexasPennsylvaniaVermont, and Virginia—have been combining statistics on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, used to diagnose current infection, with antibody blood tests, used to detect past infection.

More troublingly, The Atlantic reported on Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been doing the same thing, which artificially inflates the number of tests conducted, and makes the numbers difficult to interpret. Among other experts, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Public Health Institute, was stunned: “You’ve got to be kidding me. How could the CDC make that mistake? This is a mess.”

Accurate testing data is critical to determine the pace and scope of reopening, and to monitor for resurgences of the virus that might necessitate future restrictions. It’s important to know who’s infected now for clinical reasons, and it’s essential to understand who’s already been sick for public health purposes. Combining the two datasets is positively unhelpful, and likely only serves a political purpose.

Testing problems have proven to be this country’s original sin in the way the coronavirus pandemic has evolved, but it’s not too late to make sure that we have ample, accurate, and well-reported testing to guide critical public health decisions.

US coronavirus update: 1.62M cases, 95K+ confirmed deaths, 12.9M tests conducted (of some type).




Huge Study Throws Cold Water on Antimalarials for COVID-19

Huge Study Throws Cold Water on Antimalarials for COVID-19 ...

— No support for continued use seen in analysis of 15,000 patients who got controversial drugs

Chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), with or without an antibiotic, in hospitalized COVID-19 patients were associated with increased risk of death in the hospital and higher rates of arrhythmias, analysis of outcomes in nearly 100,000 patients indicated.

The 15,000 patients who received HCQ or chloroquine were about twice as likely to die compared to controls who did not receive these agents after adjusting for covariates (18.o% for hydroxychloroquine and 16% for chloroquine versus 9.3% for controls), reported Mandeep Mehra, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues.

The drug was also associated with a higher risk of ventricular arrhythmia during hospitalization (6.1% for hydroxychloroquine, 4.3% for chloroquine versus 0.3% for controls), the authors wrote in The Lancet.

Moreover, risks for both in-hospital mortality and ventricular arrhythmia were even higher compared to controls when either drug was combined with a macrolide antibiotic, they noted.

Mehra said in a statement these drugs should not be used as treatments for COVID-19 outside of clinical trials.

“This is the first large scale study to find statistically robust evidence that treatment with chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine does not benefit patients with COVID-19,” he said. “Instead, our findings suggest it may be associated with an increased risk of serious heart problems and increased risk of death. Randomised clinical trials are essential to confirm any harms or benefits associated with these agents.”

Mehra’s group analyzed some 96,000 patients from 671 hospitals on six continents with COVID-19 infection, from Dec. 20 to April 14, all of whom had either died or been discharged from the hospital by April 21.

Overall, 14,888 patients were treated with hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine with a macrolide antibiotic or chloroquine with an antibiotic, and their results were compared to 81,144 controls who did not receive these drugs.

Authors adjusted for demographic factors, as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, smoking, immunosuppressed conditions and baseline disease severity.

The estimated excess risk attributable to the drug regimen rather than other factors, such as comorbidities, ranged from 34% to 35%.

Arrhythmia’s greatest risk was in the group who received hydroxychloroquine and a macrolide antibiotic such as azithromycin (8% versus 0.3% of controls), and this regimen was associated with a more than five-fold risk of developing an arrhythmia while hospitalized, though cause and effect cannot be inferred, the group noted.

“Previous small-scale studies have failed to identify robust evidence of a benefit and larger, randomised controlled trials are not yet completed,” said co-author Frank Ruschitzka, MD, Director of the Heart Center at University Hospital Zurich in a statement. “However, we now know from our study that the chance that these medications improve outcomes in COVID-19 is quite low.”

An accompanying editorial by Christian Funck-Brentano, MD, PhD, and Joe-Elie Salem, MD, PhD, of Sorbonne Université in Paris, noted limitations of the observational data, but said the authors “should be commended for providing results from a well designed and controlled study … in a very large sample of hospitalized patients.”

They also cautioned against attributing the increased risk of hospital deaths to the higher incidence of arrhythmias, noting that “the relationship between death and ventricular tachycardia was not studied and causes of deaths (i.e., arrhythmic vs non-arrhythmic) were not adjudicated.”

The editorialists nevertheless concluded both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, with or without azithromycin, “are not useful and could be harmful in hospitalized patients with COVID-19,” and stressed the importance of clinical trials for these drugs.

“The global community awaits the results of ongoing, well powered randomized controlled trials showing the effects of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 clinical outcomes,” they wrote.





As Trump Rails Against Voting by Mail, States Open the Door for It

As Trump Rails Against Voting by Mail, States Open the Door for It ...

Despite the president’s opposition, states are increasingly reducing barriers to what many see as the safest way to vote amid the pandemic.

By threatening online on Wednesday to withhold federal grants to Michigan and Nevada if those states send absentee ballots or applications to voters, President Trump has taken his latest stand against what is increasingly viewed as a necessary option for voting amid a pandemic.

What he hasn’t done is stop anyone from getting an absentee ballot.

In the face of a pandemic, what was already limited opposition to letting voters mail in their ballots has withered. Eleven of the 16 states that limit who can vote absentee have eased their election rules this spring to let anyone cast an absentee ballot in upcoming primary elections — and in some cases, in November as well. Another state, Texas, is fighting a court order to do so.

Four of those 11 states are mailing ballot applications to registered voters, just as Michigan and Nevada are doing. And that doesn’t count 34 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot, including five states in which voting by mail is the preferred method by law.

“Every once in a while you get the president of the United States popping up and screaming against vote-by-mail, but states and both political parties are organizing their people for it,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “It’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance.”

Many of the states that have relaxed their rules have done so only for pending primary elections, leaving the possibility that they could choose not to do so in November. But that is highly unlikely, said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on mail ballots.

“The horse is out of the barn whether it’s primaries or the general election,” he said. “The optics are such that states will be under enormous pressure to continue to allow mail voting in the fall.”

Even as the president has offered support for some groups of absentee voters like older Americans and military serving abroad — and even as he votes absentee himself — Mr. Trump has regularly warned with no factual basis that allowing widespread voting by mail was a recipe for election theft. “You get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room, signing ballots all over the place,” Mr. Trump said at a White House briefing last month.

Despite ballot stuffing scandals in the nation’s past, and an absentee vote scandal involving Republicans in North Carolina in 2018, nothing remotely comparable has been documented in modern American politics or linked to voting by mail.

Still, some conservative advocacy groups have embraced Mr. Trump’s view, even going to court to block the expansion of absentee balloting during the pandemic. Republican-controlled legislatures in Louisiana and Oklahoma also have bridled at making voting easier. More legal battles ahead of the November election seem certain.

But in many other states, governments controlled by each of the political camps have moved in the other direction.

In lawsuits and elsewhere, voting-rights advocates and Democrats have taken aim at state rules on voting that they see as discriminatory. In Texas, a federal court ruled this week that a state regulation granting blanket absentee-ballot privileges to voters over 65 — a not-uncommon exception nationally — discriminated against younger voters.

Elsewhere, lawsuits have sought to expand a common exception allowing absentee voting by people too sick to go to the polls. The goal is to cover voters who fear catching the coronavirus while in line at a polling place. A number of states have adopted that view, ruling that voters who reasonably fear exposure to the virus have a right to vote remotely.

Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, said this week that the state would mail applications for absentee ballots to all 7.7 million registered voters for both the August primary and the November general election. The Legislature in deeply Republican South Carolina expanded absentee voting rights last week as a lawsuit pressing that cause lay before the state’s Supreme Court.

In West Virginia, the Republican secretary of state sent absentee ballot applications last month to each of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters; so far, nearly one in five has asked to vote absentee.

And in Kentucky, Republicans and Democrats agreed three weeks ago on an emergency plan that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot online and submit it by mail or at drop-off points for two weeks before the state’s June 23 primary. Michael G. Adams, the Republican secretary of state, told National Public Radio last week that he had been excoriated by his party for mailing postcards to voters explaining the new rules.

“The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans,” said Mr. Adams, who won election on a platform underscoring the threat of voter fraud.

Many political analysts say they find that odd. Until now, the decade-long crusade by Republicans against voter fraud has focused largely on requiring ID cards at polling places, supposedly to counter the distant possibility that an impersonator might make it into a voting booth. Studies show that fraud among absentee voters, while still rare, is more common — but that those voters have tended to be both older and white, a demographic that favors Republicans and Mr. Trump.

“Before 2018, Republicans loved mail balloting,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor and elections expert, said this week.

Mr. Trump said in March that Democrat-backed election proposals for expanded voting by mail would ensure that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Indeed, many Republicans and Democrats alike believe that expanding mail voting would increase Democratic turnout.

Their reasoning is that many more absentee ballots have traditionally been cast by wealthier and more educated voters and expanding voting by mail would add more votes by the low-income and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic and have a harder time getting to polls on Election Day.

But both academic studies and changing demographics throw that into question. Under Mr. Trump, the Republican base has shifted greatly toward whites with less education, while wealthier suburbanites have become increasingly Democratic. Studies in states that use voting by mail indicate it does not favor either party.

And in any case, mail voting is increasingly the norm everywhere: In 2016, nearly one in four voters cast absentee or mail ballots, twice the share just 16 years ago, in 2004.

Mr. McDonald and a number of other experts argue that the greatest threat posed by a shift to voting by mail has nothing to do with fraud. Rather, they say, it is the very real prospect that a tsunami of mail votes could overwhelm both postal workers and election officials, creating a snarl in tallying and certifying votes that would allow a candidate to claim that late-counted votes were fraudulent.

Mr. Trump’s unfounded assertions that mail balloting in Michigan and Nevada encourage fraud suggest that he could be laying the ground for such an scenario, said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“I think he’s trying to undermine confidence in elections,” Mr. Hasen said, citing Mr. Trump’s claim in 2018 that close races for governor and the United States Senate were “massively infected” by fraud until Republican candidates, Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott, prevailed. “Maybe he’s not being conscious about what he’s doing. But he’s acting as if he has a plan.”





Many Jobs May Vanish Forever as Layoffs Mount

Week 9 of the Collapse of the U.S. Labor Market: Still Getting ...

With over 38 million U.S. unemployment claims in nine weeks, one economist says the situation is “grimmer than we thought.”

Even as restrictions on businesses began lifting across the United States, another 2.4 million workers filed for jobless benefits last week, the government reported Thursday, bringing the total to 38.6 million in nine weeks.

And while the Labor Department has found that a large majority of laid-off workers expect their joblessness to be temporary, there is growing concern among economists that many jobs will never come back.

“I hate to say it, but this is going to take longer and look grimmer than we thought,” Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, said of the path to recovery.

Mr. Bloom, a co-author of an analysis of the coronavirus epidemic’s effects on the labor market, estimates that 42 percent of recent layoffs will result in permanent job loss.

“Firms intend to hire these people back,” Mr. Bloom said, referring to a recent survey of businesses done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “But we know from the past that these aspirations often don’t turn out to be true.”

In this case, the economy that comes back is likely to look quite different from the one that closed. If social distancing rules become the new normal, causing thinner crowds in restaurants, theaters and stores, at sports arenas, and on airplanes, then fewer workers will be required.

Large companies already expect more of their workers to continue to work remotely and say they plan to reduce their real estate footprint, which will, in turn, reduce the foot traffic that feeds nearby restaurants, shops, nail salons and other businesses.

Concerns about working in close quarters and too much social interaction could also accelerate the trend toward automation, some economists say.

New jobs, mostly at low wages — as delivery drivers, warehouse workers and cleaners — are being created. But many more jobs will vanish.

“I think we’re in for a very long haul,” Mr. Bloom said.

In the meantime, the Labor Department’s latest data on unemployment claims, for new filings last week, reflects the shutdown’s continuing damage to the labor force.

“The hemorrhaging has continued,” Torsten Slok, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities, said of the mounting job losses. He expects the official jobless rate for May to approach 20 percent, up from the 14.7 percent reported by the Labor Department for April.

A household survey from the Census Bureau released Wednesday suggested that the pain was widespread: 47 percent of adults said they or a member of their household had lost employment income since mid-March. Nearly 40 percent expected the loss to continue over the next four weeks.

In testimony before the Senate on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, emphasized how devastating prolonged joblessness can be for individual households and for the economy.

“There is clear evidence that when you have a situation where people are unemployed for long periods of time, that can permanently weigh on their careers and their ability to go back to work,” he said.

Emergency relief and expanded unemployment benefits that Congress approved in late March have helped tide households over. Roughly three-quarters of people who are eligible for a $1,200 stimulus payment from the federal government have received it, according to the Treasury Department.

Workers who have successfully applied for unemployment benefits are getting the extra $600 weekly supplement from the federal government, and most states have finally begun to carry out the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which extends benefits to freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t routinely qualify. The total number of new pandemic insurance claims reported, though, was inflated by nearly a million because of a data entry mistake from Massachusetts, according to the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Mistakes, lags in reporting and processing, and weeding out duplicate claims and reports have clouded the unemployment picture in some places.

What is clear, though, is that many states are still struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand, drawing desperate complaints from jobless workers who have been waiting two months or more to receive their first benefit check. Indiana, Wyoming, Hawaii and Missouri are among the states with large backlogs of incompletely processed claims. Another is Kentucky, where nearly one in three workers are unemployed.

The $600 supplement has become a point of contention, drawing criticism from Republican politicians who object to the notion that some workers — particularly low-wage ones — are getting more money in unemployment benefits than they would on the job. But many have also lost their employer-provided health insurance and other benefits.

Sami Adamson, a freelance scenic artist for theater, events and television shows, received the letter with her login credentials to collect benefits from New Jersey only Monday, more than two months after she first applied.

She said her partner, who is in the same line of work, had filed for jobless benefits in New York and quickly received his payments.

By the time she heard from New Jersey, a design studio had called her for a temporary assignment. She plans to eventually reclaim the lost weeks of benefits, but for now she is helping to make face shields in a large warehouse where assembly-line workers are spaced apart, handling plastic, foam and elastic.

“I don’t think I’ll need aid for the next two or three weeks,” Ms. Adamson said, “but I’m not sure too far ahead of that.”

Nearly half of the states have yet to provide the additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance that the federal government has promised to those who exhausted their state benefits. Workers in Florida — which provides just 12 weeks of benefits, the fewest anywhere — are particularly feeling this pinch. And while several states, including those that pay the average of 26 weeks, have offered additional weeks of coverage during the pandemic, Florida has not.

Small-business owners who were hoping the Paycheck Protection Program would enable them to keep their workers on the payroll contend the program is not operating as intended.

Roy Surdej, who owns Peaches Boutique in Chicago, applied for a loan after he was forced to close and the pandemic eliminated the season’s wave of proms, quinceañeras and graduation celebrations were canceled.

Under the program, the loan turns into a grant if he rehires the 100-person staff he had built up in February in anticipation of selling thousands of ruffled, sequined and strappy dresses during the spring rush. But he said that would be impossible, given the income he had lost and the restrictions that continue to pre-empt social gatherings.

“No way can I qualify for full forgiveness,” said Mr. Surdej, who said revenue had dried up. “It’s devastating for us,” he added, saying he had no clue when he would be able to reopen and begin rehiring. “If the government can’t adjust the dates to allow us to use it properly so we can survive, then I won’t use it.”

At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office warned that businesses able to use the Paycheck Protection Program might end up laying off workers when the program expires at the end of June.

Several states have warned workers that they risk losing their benefits if they refuse an offer to work. Federal rules enacted during the pandemic say that workers are not compelled to return to unsafe working conditions, but just what constitutes such conditions is not necessarily clear.

On Tuesday, Democratic senators sent a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to “clarify the circumstances” so that workers are not “forced to choose between going back to work in unsafe conditions, or continuing to social distance and losing their only source of income.”

Workers with child care responsibilities can stay on unemployment if public schools are closed, but once the term ends, a lack of day care or summer programs is not considered a legitimate reason. Nor are self-imposed quarantines.

Officials can lift stay-at-home and business restrictions, but then what happens? “There are lingering concerns about health, family situations, kids not in school, relatives who are sick and needing care,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust. “There’s going to be a very slow and gradual process of reopening and restoring employment beyond just a declaration from the statehouse or the county seat.”




Perspective: The Pandemic Has Created a Food Insecurity Crisis. The Federal Response Has Been Swift, but Is it Enough?

The Pandemic Has Created a Food Insecurity Crisis. The Federal ...

Our ability to access nutritious food is a critical factor to our health and well-being, which is why it has been alarming to see images in recent weeks of cars lining up by the thousands at food banks across the country. Indeed, a university survey taken since the onset of the crises found nearly 4 in 10 Americans reported having moderate to high levels of food insecurity, compared to 11 percent of households who were food insecure in 2018, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

In response, the federal government has given states administrative relief and funding through various Covid-19 response packages. USDA also has authorized temporary waivers that grant states greater flexibility to address the increased demands and to align with shelter-in-place and social-distancing orders.

USDA also created two new programs: the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). P-EBT allows states to issue eligible households an EBT card, a type of debit card used to purchase food, with the value of the free school breakfast and lunch reimbursement rates for the number of weekdays that schools are closed due to Covid-19 (estimated to be around $5.70 per day).

As of the first week of May, 18 states have been approved to provide benefits through P-EBT and 20 additional states have submitted plans for approval. CFAP aims not only to assist families in accessing food but also ranchers and farmers who have an excess supply. Through CFAP, the USDA will procure an estimated $100 million per month of fresh fruits and vegetables and $300 million per month in dairy and meat products for food banks and other nonprofits providing food to Americans in need.

Are these measures enough? Let’s examine the changes, particularly the USDA waivers for the federal food assistance programs.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provides financial support to supplement the food budget of needy families. USDA waivers that increased flexibility in the administration of SNAP include:

  • waived the requirements for in-person interviews during the SNAP enrollment process,
  • provided emergency supplementary benefits up to the maximum benefit a household can receive for up to two months,
  • removed the requirement for SNAP recipients to re-certify midway through their participation,
  • provided flexibility for jobless workers to remain eligible, and
  • expanded the SNAP online grocery purchase pilot from the original eight states adding an additional 12 states and the District of Columbia.

These efforts are a step in the right direction to ease family burdens, but the supplemental benefits and program flexibilities are time-limited by the federal public health emergency declaration for Covid-19. Also, the 40 percent of SNAP households who already receive the maximum benefit are excluded from the supplemental benefits. Especially as we are experience the sharpest increase in food costs in decades, we need to provide additional support to the lowest income SNAP recipients. To assist families during the longer economic recovery, advocates and policy experts are calling for the following expansions to ensure these benefits cover a larger share of the people who need them:

  • boost the benefit for households by 15 percent (an additional $25 per person per month),
  • increase the minimum benefit per month from $16 to $30, and
  • suspend implementation of all administrative rules that restrict access for millions of Americans.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), a public health nutrition program that provides nutrition education, breastfeeding support and nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women and mothers of small children, has been providing services remotely. USDA waivers that increased flexibility in the administration of WIC include:

  • waived requirements for the physical presence for certification,
  • waiver for deferment of measurements and blood tests,
  • ability to issue benefits remotely, and
  • food package substitutions.

That’s a good start and more can be done. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends temporarily extending WIC certification periods for infants to two years as well as extending WIC eligibility from age five to age six. The National WIC Association is also advocating for an increase in the Cash Value Benefit to enhance fruit and vegetable purchases by WIC families.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Breakfast Programs, Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which serve low-income school children, quickly revamped and developed innovative ways to distribute meals to families, often expanding their regular productions. USDA waivers that increased flexibility to help better serve families during the pandemic include:

  • ability to serve non-congregate meals,
  • allowing for pick-up and delivery of meals,
  • allowing modification in the meals components requirements,
  • waiving time elements and meal spacing requirements,
  • allowing virtual desk enrollment of new CACFP providers, and
  • waive requirement that afterschool meals and snacks be accompanied by educational activities.

CACFP provides meals to preschool-aged children in Child Care Centers and licensed child care family homes.  During the pandemic, most centers have been closed, while a majority of family homes remained open and provided services for essential workers.

According to Paula James, director of child health and nutrition at CocoKids in northern California, about 68 percent of the Contra Costa county’s family homes participating in CACFP remained open in April, and these waivers were helpful. Moving forward, she believes CACFP should continue the allowance of virtual enrollment and expand the use of that technology to regular monitoring site visits, specifically in rural areas or locations where safety could be a concern.  While the pandemic has provided the opportunity to test technological advances that could streamline program operations in the future, it also revealed some systemic weaknesses, including that CACFP has no centralized database system, which is needed at the state level and requires federal guidance. Lack of technology throughout the program was a hinderance to providing additional services to families during COVID-19.  “Continued use of technology into the future will be very important,” said James.

What more can be done? The federal government should extend COVID-19 related waivers for all nutrition programs until September 30, the date provided by congressional authority. While the public health restrictions may be lifting across the states, the economic fallout will likely be felt by families for many months to come.

In addition, states should leverage communication, technology, all federal supports, and evaluation to ensure they are successfully reaching as many in need as possible. This includes:

  • conducting a public information campaign to alert newly unemployed families in need about available food assistance programs and how to apply and access benefits;
  • utilizing technology solutions to provide remote program services and enrollment including mobile uploading of required documents;
  • taking advantage and apply for all available waiver options from the federal government; and
  • evaluating the revised work systems and if appropriate, take actions to allow for permanent program changes.

This week House Democrats passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, the fifth Covid-related legislative package, which includes a boost in funding for SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition Programs. The bill also provides support to local food banks and emergency food providers. Any bill that goes to the president should include these food access supports.

It is critical to strengthen federal food assistance programs and the social safety net while working to address the root causes of poverty to reduce health and social disparities. To learn how Altarum can assist your state in program assessment, planning, evaluation, training and analytic support for quality services, contact Tara Fowler, PhD, director of the Center for Healthy Women and Children, at