Gerontologist Dr. Karl Pillemer was half joking when he said that for 35 years, no one paid much attention to his work. 

“Suddenly, the world is really interested in the vulnerable, older population," Pillemer, a Cornell University faculty member, said. "It’s been a very busy and exhausting time because never has this issue been so important.”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought increasing attention to his work, and he has spoken with many, including advisers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, about the making COVID-19 models to predict how the virus will spread.

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Pillemer was the sole speaker during the May 19 "Tuesday Talks with Tracy." The weekly online panel discussions are hosted by Tracy Mitrano, the Democratic challenger for the 23rd Congressional district, which includes the Greater Olean area, and until Pillemer's session have featured four panelists per session.

Pillemer, who is senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology for Cornell in Ithaca and a professor of gerontology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, said he sees two main problems with how medical professionals have handled COVID-19: modeling and the inability for nursing homes to socially distance. 

He listed two items necessary for nursing homes during the pandemic: funding and testing, and he spoke on protecting people outside of nursing homes.

Although most predictive models account for only people 65 and older, Pillemer advised separate models: one for “trapped populations,” such as those in nursing homes or prisons, and one for those who are not trapped. The virus affects those two populations differently.

Pillemer recognized the tragic stories of young patient fatalities, but he stated that only approximately two percent of people under age 40 have died from COVID-19. 

“Most of the deaths in New York, at least 80 percent, have been 65 and older,” Pillemer said. “And in some countries, it’s even higher. So, we have to understand this as a disease that is especially problematic for older people.” 

Pillemer said one percent of the population lives in nursing homes, yet they make up 30 to 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths, varying by state.

“That has been almost ignored,” Pillemer said. “Even though people have been talking about it for a couple of months, they are the ideal environment for COVID-19. … It’s a place where sick and frail people are close together and unable to do any of the distancing.”

Pillemer said proposals have been made to the government to fund nursing homes for “up to 100 billion dollars” to protect seniors in long-term care, senior housing, independent living and nursing homes. Such funding, he added, "is absolutely necessary."

And he pointed out patients and workers will need routine testing. 

“Testing isn’t perfect, but at least it gives us a handle, at least it gives us some basic knowledge for this virus,” Pillemer said.

Among the questions posted during the live session, Pillemer answered two about protecting people outside of nursing homes. He said that people with diseases that make them more susceptible and vulnerable to COVID-19, including the immunocompromised and those with “certain comorbidities,” should receive the most focus. 

“We have to put priority where the actual public health needs us,” Pillemer said. “We must step in to help them.”

Responding to a question concerning risks for COVID-19, Pillemer recommended people seek reputable resources such as the Centers for Disease Control.

Mitrano commented, “It seems to me we have to float the issue up from professionals particularly like yourself to the policymakers that, sure, we get testing is appropriate, but they have to find ways to support the people that need to be tested.”

For more information on the Coronavirus in the Greater Olean area, visit TAPinto Greater Olean's Coronavirus Updates page, which is updated continuously.

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