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Health Officials Field Questions During AARP Texas Telephone Town Hall

Two of Texas’ top health officials fielded questions from AARP members during a recent telephone town hall focused on COVID-19, remarking on the importance of social distancing and explaining steps that state agencies are taking to serve people in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, and David Kostroun, deputy executive commissioner for regulatory services at Texas Health and Human Services, took part in the call with AARP Texas Director Tina Tran.

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The hour-long conversation on April 3 centered heavily on comments and questions to Hellerstedt pertaining to social distancing, the importance of good hygiene and surface cleaning, and the advantage of wearing facial coverings in public to slow the transmission of the virus.

“We do not yet have a proven antiviral medication for the treatment of COVID-19,” Hellerstadt said. “So, social distancing is probably one of the biggest things that can be done. The other part is personal hygiene. Hand washing and those personal hygiene things that our doctors and grandmas have been telling us to do our entire lives.”

Staying in place at our homes, Hellerstedt said, will go a long way toward minimizing the numbers of people potentially infected by the virus. “One of the biggest pushes is for everyone to stay home unless engaged in some essential activity, such as getting groceries and getting health care,” he said.

Kostroun, meanwhile, discussed the importance of protecting the health and safety of people receiving services in state-regulated facilities, such as nursing homes, as well as the work his department is doing to ensure those providers have the latest information available to protect the public.

“For more than a month, we have been working actively and closely with these providers and issued dozens of guidance letters, entered emergency rules and alerts, administered rule waivers, and given them flexibility to act in the public’s interest,” Kostroun said. “We fully understand that nursing homes serve the most medically fragile individuals who are at the most risk to COVID-19.”

Tran encouraged listeners on the call to visit an AARP resource page – www.aarp.org/coronavirus -- as they search for information about dealing with the novel coronavirus.

Hellerstedt said key health information from his department can be found at https://www.dshs.state.tx.us/coronavirus/, and Kostroun said inquiries about nursing home matters can be reported to his department’s complaint hotline at 800-458-9858.

Kostroun said he understands the difficulties that have been placed on people as a result of restrictions on nursing home visitations. “Providers are working very hard to accommodate the connection points of those individuals,” he said, noting that nursing homes have been urged to deploy technologies to help loved ones connect with nursing home residents without being face to face.

A caller asked Hellerstedt whether she should continue participating with a walking group in her neighborhood. He reminded her of the importance of maintaining a 6-foot distance between individuals and wearing face coverings in public but urged her to continue the workouts. “Please keep walking,” he said. “That’s a good way to keep your spirits up. It’s a good way to stay healthy…Doing the kind of things that keep us alert and give us the joy of living is absolutely vital.”

Hellerstedt also offered hope to callers who expressed grief about the expected long duration of dealing with the coronavirus.

“I think we see some very positive signs,” he said. “I see everyday that social distancing is really taking place and working…I see people eager to learn what they need to do to help prevent COVID-19. I feel a community spirit where people want to protect one another…There will be light at the end of the tunnel. It might be a kind of longer tunnel than any of us like, but there will be light and we can get through this.”

To hear a recording of the telephone town hall, visit: https://vekeo.com/event/aarptexas-52820/

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