What Seniors Can Expect When COVID Vaccines Begin to Roll Out
A 69-year-old retiree receives his first injection as a participant in a phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial by Moderna at Accel Research Sites on Aug. 4 in DeLand, Florida.
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Vaccines that protect against COVID-19 are on the way. What should older adults expect?
The first candidates, from Pfizer and Moderna, could arrive before Christmas, according to Alex Azar, who heads the Department of Health and Human Services.
Both vaccines are notably effective in preventing illness due to the coronavirus, according to information released by the companies, although much of the data from clinical trials is still to come. Both have been tested in adults age 65 and older, who mounted a strong immune response.
Seniors in nursing homes and assisted living centers will be among the first Americans vaccinated, following recommendations last week by a federal advisory panel. Older adults living at home will need to wait a while longer.
Many uncertainties remain. Among them: What side effects can older adults anticipate and how often will these occur? Will the vaccines offer meaningful protection to seniors who are frail or have multiple chronic illnesses?
Here’s a look at what’s known, what’s not and what lies ahead.
Decision-making timetable. Pfizer’s vaccine will be evaluated by a 15-member Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Thursday. Moderna’s vaccine is expected to go before the panel Dec. 17.
At least two days before each meeting, an analysis by FDA staff will be made public. This will be the first opportunity to see extensive data about the vaccines’ performance in large phase 3 clinical trials, including more details about their impact on older adults.
So far, summary results disclosed in news releases indicate that Pfizer’s vaccine, produced in partnership with BioNTech, has an overall efficacy rate of 95% and efficacy of 94% in people 65 and older. Moderna’s overall efficacy is 94%, with 87% efficacy in preventing moderate disease in older adults, according to Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the government’s COVID-19 vaccine development program.
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If the advisory panel gives a green light, the FDA will decide within days or weeks whether to authorize the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use. Distribution of the vaccine has already begun, and health care providers are expected to begin administering it immediately after the FDA acts.
Allocation framework. At a Dec. 1 meeting of the Advisory Commission on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which guides the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccines, experts recommended that people living in long-term care (primarily nursing homes and assisted living facilities) and health care workers be the first groups to get COVID-19 vaccines.
This recognizes the extraordinary burden of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. Although their residents represent fewer than 1% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of COVID deaths — more than 100,000 deaths to date.
The commission’s decision comes despite a lack of evidence that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are effective and safe for frail, vulnerable seniors in long-term care. Vaccines were not tested in this population. Federal officials insist side effects will be carefully monitored.
Next in line likely would be essential workers who cannot work from home, such as police, firefighters, teachers and people employed in food processing and transportation, according to commission deliberations Nov. 23 that have not come to a formal vote.
Then would be adults with high-risk medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, obesity, heart disease and autoimmune diseases and all adults age 65 and older.
Although states typically follow ACIP guidelines, some states may choose, for instance, to vaccinate high-risk older adults before some categories of essential workers.
Left off the list are family caregivers, who provide essential support to vulnerable older adults living in the community — an unpaid workforce of tens of millions of people. “If someone is providing day-to-day care, it makes sense they should have access to the vaccine, too, to keep everyone safe,” said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Further prioritization. The priority groups constitute nearly half of the U.S. population — 21 million health care workers, 3 million long-term care residents, 66 million essential workers, more than 100 million adults with high-risk conditions and 53 million adults age 65 and older.
With initial supplies of vaccines limited, setting priorities will be inevitable. Practically, this means that hospitals and physicians may try to identify older adults who are at the highest risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 and offer them vaccines before other seniors.
A study of more than 500,000 Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older provides new evidence that could influence these assessments. It found the conditions that most increase older adults’ chances of dying from COVID-19 are sickle cell disease, chronic kidney disease, leukemias and lymphomas, heart failure, diabetes, cerebral palsy, obesity, lung cancer and heart attacks, in that order.
“Out of all Medicare beneficiaries, we identified just under 2,500 who had no medical problems and died of COVID-19,” said Dr. Martin Makary, co-author of the study and a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “We knew risk was skewed toward comorbidity [multiple underlying medical conditions], but we didn’t realize it skewed this much.”
Supplies available. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, administered three to four weeks apart. The companies have said about 40 million doses of their vaccines should be available this year, enough to fully vaccinate about 20 million people.
After that, 50 million doses might become available in January, followed by 60 million doses in both February and March, according to Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist who heads the COVID-19 Prevention Trials Network.
That translates into enough vaccine for another 85 million people and should be sufficient to vaccinate older adults in addition to medical personnel on the front lines and many other at-risk individuals, Corey suggested at a recent panel on COVID-19 sponsored by the National Academy of Medicine and American Public Health Association.
He acknowledged these were estimates, based on information he has been given. Pfizer and Moderna have not yet specified how much vaccine will be delivered and when. Nor is it clear when other vaccines under investigation will become available — 13 are in phase 3 clinical trials — or what their monthly production capacity might be.
Distribution issues. As Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are rolled out, a very vulnerable group may have difficulty getting them: 2 million seniors who are homebound and another 5.3 million with physical impairments who have problems getting around.
The reason: handling and cold storage requirements.
Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, calling for special equipment not available in small hospitals, clinics or doctors’ offices. Moderna’s vaccine needs long-term storage at minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Landmark Health provides in-home medical care to more than 120,000 frail, chronically ill homebound seniors in 15 states. “We don’t have the capabilities to store and distribute these vaccines to our population,” said Dr. Michael Le, the company’s co-founder and chief medical officer.
Instead, he said, Landmark is working to arrange transportation for its patients to centers where COVID-19 vaccines will be administered and educating them about the benefits of the vaccines. “Given the trust, the bond we have with our patients, we can play a big role as advocates,” Le said.
Addressing mistrust. Advocates have a big job ahead of them. According to a recent poll from the University of Michigan, only 58% of older adults (ages 50 to 80) said they were very or somewhat likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine. A significant number of older adults, 46%, thought they’d get the vaccine eventually but wanted others to go first. Only 20% wanted to get it as soon as possible.
Most important in making decisions is knowing how well the vaccine works, according to 80% of the 1,556 older adults surveyed. Just over half (52%) said a recommendation from their doctor would be influential.
Dr. Sharon Inouye, a geriatrician at Hebrew Senior Life in Boston and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is among the physicians impatiently awaiting the publication of data from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s phase 3 clinical trials.
Among the things she wants to know: How many older adults with chronic health conditions participated? How many participants were 75 and older? Did side effects differ for older adults?
“What I worry about most is the side effects,” she said. “We may not be able to know about serious but rare side effects until millions of people take them.”
But that’s a gamble she’s willing to take. Not only will Inouye get a vaccine, she just told her 91-year-old mother, who lives in assisted living, to say “yes” when one is offered.
“My whole family lives in fear that something will happen to her every day,” Inouye said. “Even though there’s a lot we still don’t know about these vaccines, it’s compelling that we protect people from this overwhelming illness.”
Nursing homes are still taking days to get back COVID-19 test results as many shun the Trump administration’s central strategy to limit the spread of the virus among old and sick Americans.
In late summer, federal officials began distributing to nursing homes millions of point-of-care antigen tests, which can be given on-site and report the presence or absence of the virus within minutes. By January, the Department of Health and Human Services is slated to send roughly 23 million rapid tests.
But as of Oct. 25, 38% of the nation’s roughly 15,000 nursing homes have yet to use a point-of-care test, a KHN analysis of nursing home records shows.
The numbers suggest a basic disagreement among the Trump administration, state health officials and nursing home administrators over the best way to test this population and how to strike the right balance between speed and accuracy. Many nursing homes still primarily send samples out to laboratories, using a type of test that’s considered more reliable but can take days to deliver results.
As a result, in 29% of the approximately 13,000 facilities that provided their testing speed to the government, results for residents took an average of three days or more, the analysis found. Just 17% of nursing homes reported their average turnaround time was less than a day, and the remainder tended to get results in one or two days. Wait times for test results of staff members were similar.
Those lags could have devastating consequences, because even one undetected infection can quietly but rapidly trigger a broad outbreak. It’s especially concerning as winter sets in and the pandemic notches daily records of infections.
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In the meantime, the coronavirus continues its march through institutions. Nursing homes have reported more than 262,000 infections and 59,000 deaths since the government began collecting the information in May. Even without estimating how many residents died from COVID-19 before then, reported nursing home deaths amount to more than a quarter of all COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. so far.
During the week ending Oct. 25, the most recent period for which data is available, a third of skilled nursing facilities reported a new suspected or confirmed coronavirus infection of a resident or staff member.
Many state public health authorities and nursing homes have ongoing reservations about the rapid tests. They are considered less accurate than the more expensive ones sent out to laboratories, which are known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and identify the virus’s genetic material but often take days to complete. And their manufacturers say the rapid tests are designed for people with symptoms — not for screening a general population.
In early November, the Food and Drug Administration warned of false-positive results — in which someone is told incorrectly they are infected — associated with one type of rapid COVID test, and urged providers to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for using them in nursing homes. False negatives are also a concern because people who don’t know they are infected can unwittingly spread the virus.
HHS bought millions of rapid tests to distribute to nursing homes as the federal government imposed new mandates for the facilities to test staffers at least once a month. Routine staff testing increases to as often as twice a week for homes in areas with the highest infection rates. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which is part of HHS, does not recommend testing asymptomatic residents unless a new outbreak occurs or a resident routinely goes outside the facility.
Leaders in multiple states, including Nevada, Vermont and Illinois, have moved to ban antigen tests in nursing homes or limit their use.
“I thought the hard part was getting the testing to the different facilities,” said David Grabowski, a health care policy professor at Harvard Medical School. Instead, he said, “the major barriers to the use of rapid testing seem to be a lack of guidance on when and how to use the tests, coupled with concerns about their accuracy.”
Dr. Michael Wasserman, immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, said the national effort has been chaotic and inadequate.
The federal government “just hands stuff off to nursing homes and then says, ‘Hey, it’s yours; go use it,’” he said. “And then when things fall apart, ‘We’re not to blame.’”
Nursing homes that don’t trust the rapid tests are having to shoulder the higher cost of lab tests. It costs Stuart Almer, president and CEO of Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on New York’s Long Island, $125,000 a week to conduct lab tests on up to 1,500 residents and staff members.
“We embrace the testing,” Almer said. “But how are we supposed to continue operating and paying for this?”
Goodwin House in Virginia, which includes skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, had performed more than 9,500 tests for COVID-19 as of late October, said Joshua Bagley, an administrator. Only 100 of them were antigen tests. “The majority of our focus is still toward the PCR testing,” Bagley said.
The concerns of state health officials were perhaps most evident in Nevada, where in early October the state banned antigen testing in nursing homes. HHS said the order was illegal, and it was revoked within days.
“There is no such thing as a perfect test,” Adm. Brett Giroir, a senior HHS official who leads the Trump administration’s COVID testing efforts, said on a call with reporters Nov. 9. For example, Giroir said, a risk of PCR tests is that they could provide a positive diagnosis when a person is no longer “actually infectious.”
Although there have been widespread accuracy concerns over antigen tests, certain tests the administration is distributing nationwide have comparable accuracy to lab-based tests, he said.
Other state responses have not been as aggressive as Nevada’s but nonetheless demonstrated unease over how best to use the devices, if at all.
Vermont recommends the use of antigen tests after a known COVID exposure but says they should not be used to diagnose asymptomatic people.
Ohio was initially reluctant to deploy them after Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s false-positive result from an antigen device, although the tests have since been adopted, said Peter Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents some skilled nursing facilities in the state.
Some nursing homes say relying on antigen tests has made a monumental difference. In Hutchinson, Kansas, Wesley Towers Retirement Community has used both types of tests, but it was Abbott’s BinaxNOW antigen test that detected its first two asymptomatic people with COVID-19, said Gretchen Sapp, Wesley Towers’ vice president of health services.
“We have more confidence that our staff are indeed COVID-free or that they are out and not exposing residents. And that is incredibly helpful,” Sapp said. “The biggest challenge is I need more tests.”
A total of 1,150 homes told the federal government they did not have enough supplies for point-of-care tests for all workers, the KHN analysis found. Nursing homes can go through millions of tests quickly when testing monthly or more often, depending on the level of COVID-19 in the area.
White House spokesperson Michael Bars said the administration is working “hand-in-hand with our state and local partners” and “doing more than ever to protect the health and safety of high-risk age groups most susceptible to the virus.”
Janet Snipes, executive director of Holly Heights Care Center in Denver, said antigen tests have been useful to screen staff members despite a few false-positive results. One test was used on a clergy member a resident had summoned.
“We wouldn’t have been able to allow him in, but we were able to do the antigen testing,” she said. “With the vulnerable residents we serve, we’re hoping for more antigen testing, more testing period, more testing of any type.”
Seniors Form COVID Pods to Ward Off Isolation This Winter
Over the past month, Dr. Richard Besdine and his wife have been discussing whether to see family and friends indoors this fall and winter.
He thinks they should, so long as people have been taking strict precautions during the coronavirus pandemic.
She’s not convinced it’s safe, given the heightened risk of viral transmission in indoor spaces.
Both are well positioned to weigh in on the question. Besdine, 80, was the longtime director of the division of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. His wife, Terrie Wetle, 73, also an aging specialist, was the founding dean of Brown’s School of Public Health.
“We differ, but I respect her hesitancy, so we don’t argue,” Besdine said.
Older adults in all kinds of circumstances — those living alone and those who are partnered, those in good health and those who are not — are similarly deliberating what to do as days and nights turn chilly and coronavirus cases rise across the country.
Some are forming “bubbles” or “pods”: small groups that agree on pandemic precautions and will see one another in person in the months ahead. Others are planning to go it alone.
Judith Rosenmeier, 84, of Boston, a widow who’s survived three bouts of breast cancer, doesn’t intend to invite friends to her apartment or visit them in theirs.
“My oncologist said when all this started, ‘You really have to stay home more than other people because the treatments you’ve had have destroyed a lot of your immune defenses,’” she said.
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Since mid-March, Rosenmeier has been outside only three times: once, in September, to go to the eye doctor and twice since to walk with a few friends. After living in Denmark for most of her adult life, she doesn’t have a lot of close contacts. Her son lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“There’s a good chance I’ll be alone on Thanksgiving and on Christmas, but I’ll survive,” she said.
A friend who lives nearby, Joan Doucette, 82, is determined to maintain in-person social contacts. With her husband, Harry Fisher, 84, she’s formed a “pod” with two other couples in her nine-unit apartment building. All are members of Beacon Hill Village, an organization that provides various services to seniors aging in place. Doucette sees her pod almost every day.
“We’re always running up and down the stairs or elevator and bringing each other cookies or soup,” she said. “I don’t think I would have survived this pandemic without that companionship.”
About once a week, the couples have dinner together and “we don’t wear masks,” said Jerry Fielder, 74, who moved to Boston two years ago with his partner, Daniel, 73. But he said he feels safe because “we know where everyone goes and what they do: We’re all on the same page. We go out for walks every day, all of us. Otherwise, we’re very careful.”
Eleanor Weiss, 86, and her husband are also members of the group. “I wear a mask, I socially distance myself, but I don’t isolate myself,” Weiss said. This winter, she said, she’ll see “a few close friends” and three daughters who live in the Boston area.
One daughter is hosting Thanksgiving at her house, and everyone will get tested for the coronavirus beforehand. “We’re all careful. We don’t hug and kiss. We do the elbow thing,” Weiss said.
In Chicago, Arthur Koff, 85, and his wife, Norma, 69, don’t yet have plans for Thanksgiving or Christmas. “It’s up in the air depending on what’s happening with the virus,” he said. The couple has a wide circle of friends.
“I think it’s going to be a very hard winter,” said Koff, who has diabetes and blood cancer. He doesn’t plan to go to restaurants but hopes to meet some friends he trusts inside their homes or apartments when the weather turns bad.
Julie Freestone, 75, and her husband, Rudi Raab, 74, are “pretty fanatic” about staying safe during the pandemic. The couple invited six friends over for “Thanksgiving in October” earlier this month — outside, in their backyard in Richmond, California.
“Instead of a seating chart, this year I had a plating chart and I plated everything in advance,” Freestone said. “I asked everybody to tell me what they wanted — White or dark meat? Brussels sprouts or broccoli?”
This winter, Freestone isn’t planning to see people inside, but she’ll visit with people in groups, virtually. One is her monthly women’s group, which has been getting together over Zoom. “In some ways, I feel we’ve reached a new level of intimacy because people are struggling with so many issues — and we’re all talking about that,” she said.
“I think you need to redefine bubbles,” said Freestone, who’s on the board of Ashby Village, a Berkeley, California-based organization for seniors aging in place that’s hosting lots of virtual groups. “It should be something you feel a part of, but it doesn’t have to be people who come into your house.”
In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota, two psychologists — Leni de Mik, 79, and Brenda Hartman, 65 — are calling attention to what they call SILOS, an acronym for “single individuals left out of social circles,” and their need for dependable social contact this winter and fall.
They recommend that older adults in this situation reach out to others with similar interests — people they may have met at church or in book clubs or art classes, for instance — and try to form a group. Similarly, they recommend that families or friends invite a single older friend into their pods or bubbles.
“Look around at who’s in your community. Who used to come to your house that you haven’t seen? Reach out,” de Mik recommended.
Both psychologists are single and live alone. De Mik’s pod will include two friends who are “super careful outside,” as she is. Hartman’s will include her sister, 67, and her father, 89, who also live alone. Because her daughter works in an elementary school, she’ll see her only outside. Also, she’ll be walking regularly with two friends over the winter.
“COVID brings life and death right up in front of us,” Hartman said, “and when that happens, we have the opportunity to make crucial choices — the opportunity to take care of each other.”
Public health experts advise that thorough and frequent hand-washing, wearing masks in public meeting in small groups and maintaining at least 6 feet of social distancing can help prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more detailed advice on its website, including these pages:
Prayers and Grief Counseling After COVID: Trying to Aid Healing in Long-Term Care
A tidal wave of grief and loss has rolled through long-term care facilities as the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 91,000 residents and staffers — nearly 40% of recorded COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
And it’s not over: Facilities are bracing for further shocks as coronavirus cases rise across the country.
Workers are already emotionally drained and exhausted after staffing the front lines — and putting themselves at significant risk — since March, when the pandemic took hold. And residents are suffering deeply from losing people they once saw daily, the disruption of routines and being cut off from friends and family.
In response, nursing homes and assisted living centers are holding memorials for people who’ve died, having chaplains and social workers help residents and staff, and bringing in hospice providers to offer grief counseling, among other strategies. More than 2 million vulnerable older adults live in these facilities.
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“Everyone is aware that this is a stressful, traumatic time, with no end in sight, and there needs to be some sort of intervention,” said Barbara Speedling, a long-term care consultant working on these issues with the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, an industry organization.
Connie Graham, 65, is corporate chaplain at Community Health Services of Georgia, which operates 56 nursing homes. For months, he’s been holding socially distant prayer services in the homes’ parking lots for residents and staff members.
“People want prayers for friends in the facilities who’ve passed away, for relatives and friends who’ve passed away, for the safety of their families, for the loss of visitation, for healing, for the strength and perseverance to hold on,” Graham said.
Central Baptist Village, a Norridge, Illinois, nursing home, held a socially distanced garden ceremony to honor a beloved nurse who had died of COVID-19. “Our social service director made a wonderful collage of photos and left Post-its so everyone could write a memory” before delivering it to the nurse’s wife, said Dawn Mondschein, the nursing home’s chief executive officer.
“There’s a steady level of anxiety, with spikes of frustration and depression,” Mondschein said of staff members and residents.
Vitas Healthcare, a hospice provider in 14 states and the District of Columbia, has created occasional “virtual blessing services” on Zoom for staffers at nursing homes and assisted living centers. “We thank them for their service and a chaplain gives words of encouragement,” said Robin Fiorelli, Vitas’ senior director of bereavement and volunteers.
Vitas has also been holding virtual memorials via Zoom to recognize residents who’ve died of COVID-19. “A big part of that service is giving other residents an opportunity to share their memories and honor those they’ve lost,” Fiorelli said.
On Dec. 6, Hospice Savannah is going one step further and planning a national online broadcast of its annual Tree of Light” memorial, with grief counselors who will offer healing strategies. During the service, candles will be lit and a moment of silence observed in remembrance of people who’ve died.
“Grief has become an urgent mental health issue, and we hope this will help begin the healing process for people who haven’t been able to participate in rituals or receive the comfort and support they’d normally have gotten prior to COVID-19,” said Kathleen Benton, Hospice Savannah’s president and chief executive officer.
But these and other attempts are hardly equal to the extent of anguish, which has only grown as the pandemic stretches on, fueling a mental health crisis in long-term care.
“There is a desperate need for psychological services,” said Toni Miles, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health and an expert on grief and bereavement in long-term care settings. She’s created two guides to help grieving staffers and residents and is distributing them digitally to more than 400 nursing homes and 1,000 assisted living centers in the state.
A recent survey by Altarum, a nonprofit research and consulting firm, highlights the hopelessness of many nursing home residents. The survey asked 365 people living in nursing homes about their experiences in July and August.
“I am completely isolated. I might as well be buried already,” one resident wrote. “There is no hope,” another said. “I feel like giving up. … No emotional support nor mental health support is available to me,” another complained.
Inadequate mental health services in nursing homes have been a problem for years. Instead of counseling, residents are typically given medications to ease symptoms of distress, said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who has published several studies on this topic.
The situation has worsened during the pandemic as psychologists and social workers have been unable to enter facilities that limited outsiders to minimize the risk of viral transmission.
“Several facilities didn’t consider mental health professionals ‘essential’ health care providers, and many of us weren’t able to get in,” said Lisa Lind, president of Psychologists in Long-Term Care. Although some facilities switched to tele-mental health services, staff shortages have made those hard to arrange, she noted.
Fewer than half of nursing home staffers have health insurance, and those who do typically don’t have “minimal” access to mental health services, Grabowski said. That’s a problem because “there’s a real fragility right now on the part of the workforce.”
Colleen Frankenfield, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey, said what staffers need most of all is “the ability to vent and to have someone comfort them.” She recalls a horrible day in April, when four residents died in less than 24 hours at her organization’s continuing care retirement community in northern New Jersey, which includes an assisted living facility and a nursing home.
“The phone rang at 1 a.m. and all I heard on the other end was an administrator, sobbing,” she remembered. “She said she felt she was emotionally falling apart. She felt like she was responsible for the residents who had died, like she had let them down. She just had to talk about what she was experiencing and cry it out.”
Although Lutheran Social Ministries has been free of COVID-19 since the end of April, “our employees are tired — always on edge, always worried,” Frankenfield said. “I think people are afraid and they need time to heal. At the end of the day, all we can really do is stand with them, listen to them and support them in whatever way we can.”
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