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County looks at options for opening senior centers

Over the past few months, the Commission on Aging has been following rules passed down to them from the Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources (BADR), and continues to work on plans to reopen senior dining centers. While the centers are closed, the commission practices strict hygienic procedures while doing meal deliveries, and have reduced the amount of exposure their patrons have to under go.

“Some guidelines are not much different than what they were before, such as the obvious wearing of gloves and masks,” said director Nathanael Brown. “It doesn’t get much more protected when taking food to a person’s home and dropping it off.”

Although they don’t have a specific set-in-stone pathway to follow, the commission is modeling their reopening plan based on phases recommended to them by BADR, with the first phase being the base starting point we’re in right now. To get from phase one to phase two, there needs to be a two week downward trend of influenza-type illnesses, COVID-type cases, percent of all tests which are positive for COVID-19, and of facility wide investigations of COVID-19. Even then, in phase two, senior dining centers may remain closed and won’t become available until the commission transitions to phase three.

Phase three requires a significant leap, and has the commission unsure if it’s entirely necessary: BADR’s third phase for reopening senior dining centers calls for the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, or an acceptable and effective way to reduce the risk of infection of its patrons to an absolute minimum.

It could be well over a year before a vaccine is approved for human use; that combined with the low number of virus cases in Taylor County has led the Commission on Aging to take BADR’s advice with a grain of salt, though all dining areas are staying closed for now.

“The wait for a vaccine could be a long one and if we continue to have a low number of cases in our area maybe we could move quicker,” said Brown. “However, with the vulnerable population that we serve, it is better to be cautious than to move too quickly. So we are waiting at this point and will talk about it again.”

The small size of Taylor County’s dining centers compared to larger counties’ adds additional credence to the prospect of an earlier opening. Brown pointed out that when centers were open there would be times when only five or six people were in the dining area, and they could easily social distance while still holding a conversation, not like county centers that have 45 or more people milling about all at once.

When the centers eventually reopen, they will have more regulations than before to protect their age-centered cliental.

“When we’re able to open up, whenever that will be, we’ll separate people, make sure they stay six feet apart,” Brown said. “Maybe we’ll take reservations and have a cut-off capacity.”

The commission expressed particular worry over those that come from senior living centers, who may come to dine-in and accidentally bring the virus back with them to the living center, with outbreaks in places such as retirement homes spreading like wildfire and hitting the most at-risk group devastatingly hard. To see the horror that can be wrought on senior living centers, one simply has to look at New York’s outbreak, with The New York Times reporting that over one-third of all COVID-19 deaths are from nursing home residents, making up 35% of New York’s 31,000 reported virus deaths.

As such, Brown recommended the senior dining centers stay closed until further notice per official rules, but hopes to safely reopen as soon as feasibly possible.

“It’s going to be a progression,” he said. “It shouldn’t go from being closed to being back to what we were doing before.”