According to local officials, not enough is being done to protect Hoboken’s senior citizens. More action needs to be taken to help the population most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has already infected 239 Hoboken residents as of April 7, and killed six.
Of those who died, five were senior citizens living in the Hoboken Housing Authority, according to Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, citing informal sources. Three of them were living at Monroe Gardens at 221 Jackson St., according to Councilman Ruben Ramos, who represents the Fourth Ward where the building is located.
Director of Health and Human Services Leo Pellegrini said, “I can not provide any information,” but added that the deceased all had “serious underlying health conditions.”
“We identified this as an issue from the beginning, but the administration has been slow to react,” said Ramos, calling 221 Jackson St. a “hot spot” along with any other building with three or more individuals who have contracted the virus.
Informing the vulnerable
While the mayor and the city have been consistently informing the public on COVID-19 and the latest initiatives to combat the virus through daily announcements via social media, Facebook live sessions, and Nixle alerts, many seniors don’t have computers or smartphones.
“The city has put some things out on social media, but not everyone’s on Twitter or getting Nixle alerts or checking the Hoboken Facebook page,” Ramos said. “It is not a good way to reach seniors.”
Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro said, while donating and delivering 110 bags of food at 221 Jackson St. on April 7, that some residents weren’t “in the know.”
“I encountered some seniors who were nervous or anxious about the situation because they’re not all in the know as much as our younger or tech savvy residents,” she said.
Chaparro said she had to remind people to social distance regularly and witnessed at least six people jammed into the elevator during her visit.
Pellegrini said the city has put flyers in senior buildings in Spanish and English and noted that information will also be included in the meals delivered to seniors.
Executive Director of the Housing Authority Marc Recko said the HHA has posted flyers in central lobbies, on every floor next to elevators, and a number of informational pamphlets gone out door-to-door.
Hoboken has set up a hotline for seniors requesting assistance, or anyone in contact with a senior in need, at 201-420-5625, which is open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.
He said the flyers and pamphlets include CDC guidelines, social distancing, local emergency numbers, and how to reach out for food and medical support.
Ramos said flyers and social media are not enough and suggested that police officers or Hoboken CERT volunteers use a blow horn and make announcements throughout city streets in both English and Spanish reminding individuals to social distance, isolate, wash their hands, and more.
Pellegrini said he didn’t think the method would be effective because not everyone would hear it, especially if they are inside and isolated in a unit away from the street.
“The last thing we want is a situation like the one in Washington State,” said Ramos while discussing 221 Jackson St., citing the Kirkland area nursing home where 35 people died after getting COVID-19.
To help protect seniors Ramos said the city is using about $17,800 of CDBG funding to sanitize the three HHA senior properties using a local contractor to “fog” the buildings that he said have not had a deep clean.
According to Recko, HHA buildings are cleaned every morning and high-touch areas are disinfected in every building at least three times a day with senior buildings receiving it four times a day.
This includes sanitizing access buttons, handles, elevator buttons, and doorknobs.
He said currently no staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but like any organization, some employees are concerned about going to work because they have pre-existing conditions that put them at a high risk of contracting COVID-19. To the extent possible, some employees are working remotely.
“Of course in our business, we can’t all work from home,” said Recko, noting that maintenance staff has been “retooled” to respond to emergencies and immediate-need work orders only. Roughly 35 employees are doing the daily cleaning and sanitizing of buildings.
“We haven’t had an inordinate amount of staff who have called in and can’t come in,” Recko said.
One less reason to leave home
On April 7, Chaparro delivered 110 bags of groceries to seniors at 221 Jackson St. working with the Hoboken Food Pantry.
Bags not only included food but gloves, a mask, and instructions in Spanish and English on how to make your own mask as well as advice on how to stay safe, including isolating at home.
“I was happy to distribute groceries to seniors and go door-to-door to make sure they’re staying inside as much as possible,” Chaparro said. “It was definitely an emotional experience.”
Council members are doing the same, donating and delivering groceries to other senior buildings both privately owned and part of the housing authority, according to Ramos, in an effort to ensure seniors don’t leave their homes unnecessarily.
“We need to constantly let them know how important it is to stay home and frankly how risky it is for them not to,” said Councilwoman Fisher.
The city will deliver meals to the senior Housing Authority buildings, according to an April 7 Nixle alert.
“I recognize that these are extremely challenging times for our seniors, who are understandably concerned for their health and safety,” said Mayor Ravi Bhalla in the alert. “To help reduce the amount of times they need to leave their homes and to assist those in need, I’m glad to share we are initiating a new meal delivery initiative for two weeks for seniors at the Hoboken Housing Authority.”
Through the initiative, roughly 500 seniors at 221 Jackson St., 221 Adams St., and 311 13th St. will now have meals delivered directly to their buildings, to help prevent additional outside food trips.
Using some of the funding received from the federal government in Community Development Block Grants, the city will fund the new meal deliveries.
“The city’s entire emergency response plan has a lot of positives, but the area they dropped the ball relates to our highest risk residents,” said Fisher. “Hopefully the new meal plan is finally a step in the right direction.”
Seniors in need of food delivery or meals can call 201-420-5625 as the Hoboken Food Pantry and Hoboken’s CERT team coordinates deliveries.
“It is crucial for our senior residents to stay indoors and utilize city’s CERT team to do things for them like get deliveries,” said Council member Vanessa Falco. “I still see seniors out and people out congregating.”
Ramos said while these initiatives will help seniors, delivering meals and more should “have started weeks ago.”
He said seniors should get priority testing for the virus, but Pellegrini said he “hasn’t gotten that kind of request,” noting that the city is focused on essential workers, health care workers, and first responders.
At the last council meeting, Ramos and Fisher said the city should look into a contingency plan to aid seniors in senior buildings if there is a rapid outbreak.
Pellegrini said the city took a lot of proactive measures early on, such as discontinuing senior programming at the multi-service center, closing community rooms in the Housing Authority and private senior buildings, and discouraging congregating of any kind.
Ramos suggested that the city should create an evacuation plan to put healthy seniors in hotels away from positive coronavirus patients.
When asked if the city has created a contingency plan or considered an evacuation plan, Pelegrini said “no,” adding “This is not a hurricane. This is not a wildfire. The best thing to do is self isolate, stay at home, and limit contact …These next two weeks are critical, and people need to stay inside and self isolate, and we will be okay.”
Residents with symptoms of COVID-19 must call 201-420-562 in advance to schedule an appointment at the Riverside Medical Center testing site under the viaduct which is free for residents.