In March, 75-year-old Davetta Brooks became worried when staff at her Chicago senior apartment building did not wear masks or gloves.
That was around the same time Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order to guard against the spread of COVID-19. Brooks soon heard that staff members had been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“No type of wellness tests or testing came after that,” Brooks said Monday at a City Council hearing. “We were just left to fend for ourselves.”
Brooks shared her experience with members of the Committee on Health and Human Relations. The committee recommended Monday the full council approve an ordinance aimed at protecting residents of buildings for older Chicagoans from the pandemic.
“It pains me to know that you all know and the management knew the impact of this COVID-19 on seniors,” Brooks told committee members. “Some of this could’ve been prevented. … We don’t know what’s going on. All we hear are the ambulances.”
Brooks is a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, an organization aimed at addressing social justice issues. Her organization helped craft and finalize the ordinance, which would require personal protective equipment for staff members working with seniors. It also mandates frequent cleaning of buildings.
The Tribune found this spring that residents of low-income senior housing in Chicago were being kept in the dark about coronavirus deaths in their buildings and that at least 90 people had died by late May in such buildings in the city. The ordinance does not require residents to be notified when someone dies of COVID-19 in their building, although information about coronavirus deaths in the city is publicly available from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, a sponsor of the ordinance, said members of the senior caucus discussed the issue of not receiving notifications regarding deaths and illnesses in care facilities. But a provision to address this was not added because of questions about privacy, Hadden said.
The ordinance does require staff to conduct wellness checks on seniors multiple times a week, to ensuring residents have needed medications, food and working utilities. Wellness checks can combat the isolation brought on by COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, said Rebecca Murray, manager of clinical behavioral health at Oak Street Health.
A provision would require translations of all communication to residents in their primary languages.
A professional interpreter helped prepare a statement from Maria Perez, a Spanish speaker and member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. Perez lives in a Chicago senior apartment building.
For three months, Perez said she carried hot water from her kitchen to her bathroom, unable to tell her building manager there was an issue with her shower water. She recently had back surgery.
“There is nothing — no communication in our languages, no services, no attention,” Perez said. “They think that we are disposable like trash. We have been abandoned.”
Hadden said she believes it is the duty of elected officials to work with residents in building solutions to issues.
“The pandemic has shaken us to the core, further revealing the gaps and the flaws in our social safety net and decision-making structures,” Hadden said.
“As now a representative of government, I almost feel like I have to apologize for government that we have not been as proactive on this — that we’re discussing it now during a pandemic,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, one of more than a half-dozen aldermen who spoke at the hearing.
Recent data shows that infection and death rates in long-term care facilities are dropping. However, outbreaks in nursing homes, assisted living centers and other congregate-care facilities are linked to 55% of Illinois deaths from COVID-19.
Brooks said she hopes the ordinance will be passed to protect seniors.
“Seniors aren’t buildings or ZIP codes,” she said. “We’re people that belong to people.”
The ordinance is scheduled to be voted on July 22 by the full council.
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