Op-ed: How to build a healthy post-pandemic NYC

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If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we need to tackle crises head-on. The plain truth is that the pandemic hit our city and our country so hard in part because our healthcare system was so broken to begin with.

Getting healthcare shouldn’t be daunting, and a better patient experience ultimately leads to better patient outcomes. It’s time to reimagine our healthcare system to build a healthy, livable, and equitable city — and to build resilience and protect us for the future. I’m ready to get to work building that city together. That’s why I’ve put forward a plan to ensure that every New Yorker has access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.

That starts by bringing healthcare closer to your home. During the pandemic, we saw an increased use of virtual care and telehealth services that you can use from the comfort of your home. The City’s public hospital system went from just 500 billable primary and specialty care virtual visits in the month prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to nearly 57,000 in the first three weeks of the pandemic — and completed over 600,000 televisits through September 2020. We need to expand those options permanently. 

Solving the access problem means eliminating logistical hurdles that get between you and your doctor. It also means doing away with unnecessary delays that get in the way of people getting care when they need it. No one should wait any longer than ten days for a primary care appointment. As mayor, I will deploy mobile teams of healthcare professionals to conduct home visits and work to expand after-hours care at community healthcare sites to ensure 24/7 on-demand healthcare access. We will also make it to get to those sites, by adding and changing bus routes to make them more convenient.

Health is more than healthcare. A healthy city also means that every New Yorker can access affordable, nutritious food. Even before the pandemic, more than a million New Yorkers — including one in every five children — were experiencing food insecurity, and that number has only increased. Inadequate access to healthy food puts New Yorkers at a higher risk for chronic illness, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

When COVID hit, I built an emergency food program to make sure no New Yorker went hungry. That program has now delivered over 200 million meals to homebound older adults and food insecure families.

New York can and should improve upon the federal food stamp program in two ways: First, we can expand options for online food delivery to make SNAP benefits more convenient to use. And second, we can address the hot meals gap. I have proposed an ambitious plan to help families pay for hot meals at local restaurants to make nutritious meals just as affordable as junk food — supporting our hard-hit restaurants in the process.

Along with an increase in food insecurity, the pandemic has exacerbated New York City’s mental health crisis. More than 4,000 New York City students have lost a parent to COVID-19, and we have already begun to see the impact. To help these children cope with trauma, I will add mental health resources in schools to provide social-emotional support and connect students to the care they need.

Our inequitable treatment of people living with serious mental illnesses is a long neglected public health crisis that has been exacerbated by the increase in housing insecurity. 

The pandemic has tested our city, and taken too many of our loved ones. But it has not broken us. As a lifelong New Yorker and dedicated public servant, I was on the ground here when COVID hit making sure people got the food they needed — and I’ll be here helping rebuild our city making sure all New Yorkers get the care they need when they need it. 

I’m committed to the long term investments we need to make to be a healthier city. More than ever, we have to protect our parks and eliminate diesel traffic from our streets. We can win the war against asphalt and asthma and make NYC a green oasis. This is how we can create the New York of the future — a city where families are safe and healthy and people thrive.

Kathryn Garcia is a Democratic candidate for mayor. She is the former Commissioner for the New York City Sanitation Department, Interim Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority, and Food Czar for New York’s emergency food program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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