Gov. Wolf to Honor Department of Aging’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman for Tireless Work to Support Seniors During Pandemic

April 29, 2021

With the pandemic creating unprecedented challenges over the past year, Governor Tom Wolf is honoring state employees who went above and beyond this year with Governor’s Awards for Excellence. Margaret Barajas, the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, is being recognized for going above and beyond in her duties to protect and advocate for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is among 51 employees from 10 agencies who will receive awards during a virtual ceremony on May 5 for extraordinary accomplishments in 2020.

Barajas took extraordinary steps by putting herself at risk, as did so many long-term care workers, to get inside facilities with outbreaks and improve the circumstances of vulnerable seniors. When she saw the need, Barajas and two of her team members were trained by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) use, which enabled them to help stabilize those facilities, connect with their residents, and make sure both the COVID-19 positive and negative residents understood their options and had a voice in their care or relocation. Barajas did this, and continues to do so, on evenings, weekends, and holidays, despite the risks that COVID-19 poses on her own health. Barajas also made her first COVID-19 vaccination public so that as a woman of color, she could demonstrate to others who may be afraid of getting the vaccine that it is safe.

“The work that Margaret has performed day-in and day-out during the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary. Her compassion and attentiveness for residents in long-term care facilities helped guarantee they received proper care and that they were safe, particularly in facilities with a high number of cases,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “I applaud Margaret and her staff for their continued good work to protect and advocate for older adults across the Commonwealth.”

Dan Jurman, executive director of the Office of Advocacy and Reform, nominated Barajas to receive the award.

“While all of us have experienced long hours, new stresses, and challenges during this crisis, few of us have had to face going headlong “into the fire” in the way that Margaret has. Through it all, she has been a steadfast voice of calm and professionalism despite how much she was tested. She has also had to tend to her own and her team’s behavioral health needs as there is nothing more painful for an advocate than to see the people you serve suffering and dying at such unfathomable numbers, especially when you can’t be with them,” said Jurman. “Margaret is an example to us all as we continue to struggle with this deadly pandemic and the difficult days yet to come. She is an inspiration to me every day.”

In her role as State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Barajas quickly garnered new resources and innovated services when she and her team were cut off from in-person visiting with older adults in facilities. The office started the Virtual Family Council in May 2020 as an online forum for families that could not have in-person visits with their loved ones living in these facilities. Barajas also implemented Padbots – mobile robots that utilize a smart phone or tablet attached to a wheeled base – to safely connect ombudsmen with residents via video who may not be able to adequately correspond or who do not have their own communication devices. Ombudsmen control the Padbots’ movements and their faces are projected on a screen to allow personal, private interaction with residents without assistance from facility staff.

“Our department and I are very proud of Margaret’s relentless advocacy and dedication. She is truly deserving in receiving a Governor’s Award of Excellence. Throughout the COVID-19 emergency, she has provided important input and advice while working with nursing homes to develop connections in accordance with a family’s needs and a facility’s procedures and capabilities,” said Secretary of Aging Robert Torres. “Margaret’s compassion, tenacity, and creative approach to problem-solving has made a difference for long-term care residents and their families and has helped us develop innovative practices.”

The Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman supports and empowers consumers by resolving individual complaints involving long-term care service while working to improve and enhance the long-term living system for residents and their families. The office has a ground force of 273 local ombudsmen in communities across Pennsylvania, advocating and empowering on a case-by-case basis to resolve complaints and issues.

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