Payson’s huge population of seniors faces a lethal risk from the resurgence of the pandemic, including not only the virus itself but the depression, social isolation and dismay it has brought in its wake, Payson Senior Center Board member Joanne Conlin told the Payson Town Council at a recent meeting.
She implored the council to reinstate its mask mandate during the public comment period of its Nov. 12 meeting. The council scheduled a special meeting and did just that the following Tuesday.
Conlin, also the Payson School Board president, said she’s witnessed the struggles of Payson’s vital senior citizen population to adjust to the way the virus has upended their lives.
Lifting the mask mandate made it all that much harder – with seniors even more fearful of going out in public and getting infected.
“You ended the face mask mandate and the COVID numbers have been increasing ever since,” said Conlin.
She then painted a grim picture of the struggles of many of Payson’s seniors, facing both the prospect of a fatal infection as well as isolation from family, depression and anxiety.
Payson’s average age is 58 and a daunting 37 % of residents are older than 65. COVID’s mortality rate remains far higher for seniors. Statewide, those over 65 account for about 11% of the infections and 71% of the known deaths. Payson has also experienced a rash of COVID deaths in nursing homes, accounting for a Gila County death rate that is close to double the statewide average on a per-100,000 basis.
Conlin explained that until the Gila County Health Department sees numbers similar to those in September when “we were in the green” the senior center will remain closed.
“Early in September…the center was planning to phase a reopening so that we could have our seniors back again in a safe environment following CDC protocol,” said Conlin.
The reopening would have helped many who rely on the Senior Center for socialization.
“Our seniors have become prisoners in their own homes because they do not have a safe place to go to connect with others,” said Conlin.
But Conlin recognized the increasing COVID cases also affect the school district. The long months of distance learning have taken a toll. Assessment testing shows more than half the students in the district are behind academic benchmarks. In person learning is critical to get them back on track.
“Our children just went back to school and we do not want to see them back home again if the district goes all red,” said Conlin, based on the state markers for school operations.
In fact, the day after Conlin made her presentation to the council, Rim Country Middle School closed due to two positive cases. Since that time, the district has identified five other positive cases with a dozen or more tests from close contacts still out. The Town of Payson had 11 positive cases identified in one day.
The toll on the community’s mental health spurred Conlin to speak.
“Study after study resonates with the same message, no matter what your age, COVID-19 has brought about uncertainty, social isolation and anxiety,” she said, “This increased risk can result in depression and physical and mental health problems.”
She implored the council to get behind the message that face masks and social distancing work.
On Nov. 17, Mayor Tom Morrissey agreed to reinstate his mask mandate requiring face coverings in all public and enclosed spaces.
Conlin said the mask mandate will help schools and businesses remain open, minimizing the financial impact of the pandemic.
“You are the elected officials of the community, the whole community. You are here to protect the interests of all, including our seniors and all our children. Your May 16th proclamation stated, you are committed to both mitigating the economic harm of COVID-19 and ensuring the safety of those in our town. If you truly believe this, you will do what is right. Please, let our seniors know you want to live a normal life in a safe way.”
Statewide on Wednesday, Arizona reported 3,206 new cases and 53 new deaths, including 47 cases and 3 deaths in Gila County. Since the onset of the pandemic, Gila County has reported 4,415 cases per 100,000 and 147 deaths. That compares to a statewide death rate of 88 per 100,000.