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At risk from the coronavirus and running low on food, Tampa Bay seniors get help from emergency program

Feeding Tampa Bay this week is delivering 8,000 meals to about a dozen senior communities.

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CLEARWATER — Maggie Lauer hasn’t been outside since February.

A retired nurse, she understands the risk of being around other people. The chronic obstructive pulmonary disease she suffers from puts her in a high-risk category.

But it hasn’t been easy for her or about 100 seniors at Creekside Manor who have been asked to stay confined in their apartments and restrict outside trips. The Clearwater independent living home is trying to keep the vulnerable population free of the coronavirus.

There’s no bingo, no cards night, no cooking classes. A community pantry stocked with items donated from food banks had to be closed because it relied on visitors and residents congregated there.

Last week, staffers at the apartment complex began to worry that residents were getting low on food. Most do not have their own transportation and are on fixed incomes.

Help soon arrived from an emergency food program put together by Feeding Tampa Bay, the region’s largest food rescue and distribution organization. Last week it delivered about 2,000 prepared meals to a handful of senior communities including Creekside. This week, it has expanded to 8,000 meals and is serving about a dozen communities mostly in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“We know clearly there is a consistent need in the senior population,” said Matt Spence, the nonprofit’s chief programs officer. “As soon as the information started coming out about the coronavirus, we realized seniors could be self-isolated and limiting their own options, so we felt we would have to step in as soon as possible.”

Warning signs about the coronavirus are fixed to the glass doors of Creekside. The lobby and grounds were largely empty of residents Tuesday at lunchtime.

A sign written by Lauer on a lobby whiteboard reads: “I’m not stuck at home. I’m safe at home.”

The complex, which is for low-income seniors and people on disability, is run by Volunteers of America, Florida.

Almost half of seniors have no retirement savings and rely on Social Security, according to a 2019 study by the AARP. At Creekside, that means some residents make do on as little as $400 per month.

Whatever their income, residents pay no more than a third of their income on rent. The rest is subsidized by the federal government.

Protecting them from the coronavirus has been a priority for Creekside staffers. So far no resident has tested positive for COVID-19, but some residents have gone to the doctor because their blood pressure has spiked, probably because of stress, said Janet Stringfellow, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Florida.

Prepared meals are seen as Creekside Manor team members prepare to deliver the meals to residents Tuesday. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

The bags of food that were delivered Tuesday contained four prepared meals, cheese, milk and a quart of fresh strawberries. The meals cooked at Trinity Café, a kitchen and dining facility for the homeless and needy. Beef stroganoff and chicken with yellow rice were among the meal choices.

“This literally will feed them for four or five days," Stringfellow said. “They won’t have to go to the grocery store.”

To limit contact, staffers place bags of food outside the doors and knock.

“It’s just like angels,” said resident Becky Low, 70. “They have brought food to the door knowing we can’t get out.”

Low has lived at Creekside for three years. She said it has been tough staying in her apartment. She mostly watches TV and reads.

“The unknown is scary and I worry about all the people here and everyone,” she said. “I feel so bad for all the people suffering and losing loved ones.”

Lauer, 66, said she fills her day using her daughter’s Netflix account and playing computer games on a tablet. She looks out her window and watches children play, wondering if she missed seeing them before. She’s seen butterflies and plants she never noticed.

She has a son in Pennsylvania and a daughter in Tampa but said she’s proud that they don’t have to worry about her.

“I’m confident we will be doing this for several months," she said.

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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