Column: Leaving seniors to fend for themselves during pandemic ‘has cost lives’

Paula Stewart and Lucille Ball
Paula Stewart, right, with Lucille Ball at a charity event in New York prior to Ball’s death in 1989.
(Jerry Kean)

At age 90, Paula Stewart has lived a long and colorful life. She appeared on Broadway with Lucille Ball. She was married to composer Burt Bacharach and comedian Jack Carter.

Now, she just wants her drugstore to deliver her meds so she doesn’t have to put her life on the line filling prescriptions.

“I called CVS, and they said they could deliver, but they would charge extra,” Stewart told me. “I said not to bother. So I went to the store myself, which of course was very dangerous.”

As it happens, the same day she made that unwanted trip to her CVS in West Los Angeles, the company announced it was temporarily waiving its delivery fee.


Walgreens has done the same, a spokeswoman told me, and Walmart says there’s no delivery charge for orders from the company’s online pharmacy. No one at Rite Aid or Target responded to my requests for comment.

Props to drugstores that have stepped up.

That it took some leading chains this long to act, however, may have needlessly endangered millions of older Americans who have been told to stay home, avoid crowds and not engage in behavior that could put them at risk of coronavirus infection.

“It’s taken way too long,” said Kevin Prindiville, executive director of the advocacy group Justice in Aging. “Our failure to create systems early on to help older people social distance has cost lives.”


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of known cases of coronavirus infection in the United States as of March 16 involved people aged 65 or older. (Total cases now top 43,000.)

Seniors accounted for about 45% of hospitalizations and more than half of all admissions to intensive care units at medical centers as of March 16, the CDC said.

By mid-month, 80% of known coronavirus-related deaths in this country involved senior citizens, it said. (As of Monday, total deaths had surpassed 500.)

“Similar to reports from other countries, this finding suggests that the risk for serious disease and death from COVID-19 is higher in older age groups,” the CDC concluded.


Advocates for seniors say the public and private sectors should have seen this coming.

“Older adults are more vulnerable,” said Michele Mathes, development director for the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly. “That’s clear.”

Prindiville at Justice in Aging called the CDC’s stats “shameful.”

“We need corporations and governments to do everything they can to help at-risk people,” he said.


For Stewart, the high proportion of seniors among coronavirus patients reflects a tardy response to a public-health crisis by people who should have known better.

In particular, she said, pharmaceutical companies and drugstores have been far too slow in demonstrating an awareness that many of their core customers — seniors — are in danger.

Instead, until recently, it’s been business as usual.

“Aren’t they making enough money already off my overpriced prescriptions?” Stewart asked. “They can’t give any back?”


A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that large drug companies had a median profit margin of almost 14% from 2000 to 2018, compared with a median profit margin of less than 8% for other businesses.

CVS Health enjoyed a 32% increase in revenue last year to about $257 billion, with operating income of $12 billion.

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global emergency on Jan. 30. The first U.S. patient died of the virus on Feb. 29, as the number of cases worldwide rose to nearly 87,000.

CVS announced its delivery-fee waiver on March 9. A spokeswoman declined to comment on the timing.


This might seem like a relatively narrow time frame. But if you’re an at-risk person trying to maintain a steady supply of prescription drugs, every day counts.

Stewart said she recalled watching President Trump on TV praising moves taken by his administration and business leaders.

Among pharmaceutical executives attending the March 13 White House event was CVS Executive Vice President Thomas Moriarty.

“We have been focused, since the start, on making sure our patients and the customers we serve have the information they need and the safety they need as well,” he said.


America’s public and private sectors have not been focused “since the start” on safeguarding people. At best, our political and corporate leaders can be described as late to the party.

Stewart, even at her advanced age, remains feisty. I asked how many pills she takes daily.

“Hold on, let me go to my medicine chest,” she replied. She proceeded to pull out vials and list the conditions the meds are intended to treat.

“Blood pressure ... thyroid ... arteries ...”


Stewart figures she takes as many as 20 pills daily, including prescription drugs, vitamins and supplements. Most seniors can undoubtedly relate.

That’s why Stewart was so incensed when CVS tried to profit from her fragile health as recently as a couple of weeks ago, prior to the fee waiver. “I wasn’t going to pay them more money,” she said.

Hopefully we’ve turned a corner on such behavior. Some of the country’s biggest retailers have finally recognized they have a key role to play in protecting the elderly.

Free deliveries of drugs is an important step. So is the practice begun by some grocery stores, including Costco and Target, of setting aside a little time each week solely for seniors to do their shopping.


CVS said Monday that it’s looking to fill 50,000 jobs nationwide to keep up with demand from customers. It called this move “the most ambitious hiring drive in the company’s history.”

Advocates for the elderly are keeping their fingers crossed.

“Business practices at odds with public health guidance are bad for customers, the community and businesses alike,” said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for AARP.

“We urge companies to pay attention to public health warnings and offer products and services without cutting corners that risk widespread infections, hospitalizations and fatalities,” he said.


It’s striking that such admonitions even need to be made.

Maybe when the next pandemic rolls around, businesses won’t need such reminders.