A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination on the first day of operations at Gilroy High School in Gilroy, Calif. on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. The site can vaccinate about 1,000-2,000 residents per day in a city that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Public Health Media Relations of Santa Clara County)

Pandemic isolation was almost as hard on elderly people as the COVID-19 virus itself, and vaccines, boosters, and masking are vital tools in re-socializing older adults and those with disabilities, a panel of experts said Tuesday in Pleasant Hill.

“I am delighted that we can actually do something in person and that we have an opportunity to highlight the impact of adult day care,” said Debbie Toth, the president and CEO of Choice in Aging, an adult day health care center.

“These last two years were unbelievably difficult, particularly for our aging population,” Toth said. “The fear of death was real.”

Adult day health care centers are where seniors and those with disabilities, still living at home or with family, can gather for recreation, meals, health interventions, and other activities. Most are just reopening with masks and social distancing in place.

Tuesday’s gathering was to bring awareness to not only the difficulties the pandemic has brought to older people, but what still needs to be done. Toth said the impact was disproportionately felt by older Americans, who experienced much higher infection and death rates.

“It’s the first time in my lifetime that every day in the newspaper we were reading about older adults, because we rarely read about older adults, because they are so often invisible in our society,” Toth said. “And here we were in a situation where they were dying. Where they were getting ill at extremely high and scary rates.

“And to add further damage, we were asking older adults to do what we told them all along never to do, which was to isolate. We always tell older adults ‘Do not isolate, it will negatively impact your health.’ But in order to save lives, we told them they had to isolate.”

Coming out of the severe phase of the pandemic, older people especially need assistance re-adapting.

“We need to socialize — we’re social creatures,” said Toth, who also oversees Mt. Diablo Center, another adult day center in Pleasant Hill. “We need to be able to have community, to come together, to share a language, a culture, a friendship, and vaccines and boosters are the only things that have made this possible for our aging population.”

Susan DeMarois is the director of the California Department of Aging. She especially wanted to convey three messages: There are COVID-19 related services all over the state, workers can come to homebound Californians, and everyone who needs state Medi-Cal should check their enrollment status and re-enroll if necessary.

“We don’t want anyone’s service eligibility or benefits to be disrupted in any way,” DeMarois said.

Dr. Sara Levin, from Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, said the elderly have been hit hardest by every variant of COVID-19. She stressed that, if someone can’t get to the county for vaccinations, the county will come to them.

“We do have a place on our website — cchealth.org — where you can register and have a nurse come out to the home from our public health department to do boosters in the home,” Levi said. “So I just want to encourage anyone listening, they are available.”

She also encouraged people, especially those with symptoms, to find out more about anti-viral treatments. Many counties, including Contra Costa, are partnering with pharmacies to offer test to treat services. People testing positive can immediately get a prescription of anti-viral medication to lessen the virus’ severity.

“There’s good evidence that those treatments can make the difference between having a mild, “cold” illness and ending up in the intensive care unit on a ventilator,” Levin said.

Kim McCoy Wade is a senior advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom on aging, disability, and Alzheimer’s. She compared the importance of opening senior community centers to opening schools. She said it’s important for everyone to have a plan moving forward.

“We’ve had to be so focused on vaccines and boosters to save lives. But I’m so glad today we are focusing on vaccines and boosters to bring us back together to reconnect,” McCoy Wade said.

“So make a plan to keep current, not just to save lives, but also so we can reconnect. All of us need it, all across the ages.”

To find a local licensed adult day health care center and other state resources on aging, go to www.aging.ca.gov. To make a vaccination or booster appointment, go to https://myturn.ca.gov.