BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Local and federal officials on Monday touted millions of dollars in federal investments in Baltimore City that will go toward expanding internet access for seniors and bring them up to speed on telemedicine.
Roughly $2.35 million in congressional earmarks has been set aside to not only expand the city's fiber optic network to local senior centers but also to develop three telehealth pilot programs, according to Mayor Brandon Scott's office.
Speaking Monday morning at the Baltimore Hatton Senior Center, Mayor Scott said the COVID-19 pandemic made clear just how important internet access and digital literacy are to residents' health, particularly seniors.
"Digital inclusion is a key social determinant of residents' health and wellbeing as our population ages," he said. "Many of our older residents find themselves socially isolated, and the pandemic further exacerbated this issue. The inability of so many of our older adults to reliably access the internet severely limits their quality of life."
Nearly 43,000 households in Baltimore have no internet connection, Scott said, and about 29,000 lack a computer. He said about 62% of adults over 65 have a computer and broadband internet access, while 24% of them have no computer.
The mayor said the funding will empower Baltimore's seniors to take advantage of resources in the digital space, from getting their prescriptions renewed through telehealth appointments to connecting with grandchildren through social media.
"Internet access is not only a critical public infrastructure but also an equity issue, and Baltimore intends to permanently close the digital divide by the end of this decade," Scott said. "By bringing the fiber optic network to our senior centers, we plan to create connectivity hubs for our older adults and provide them with the tools and training required to successfully navigate virtual healthcare spaces."
U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger credited the effort to a combination of congressional earmarks—money set aside for specific projects typically tacked onto other pieces of legislation—and cooperation between local and federal officials.
"We're here today to really acknowledge this teamwork," Ruppersberger said.
The congressman said the expanded fiber optic access will reach 13 senior centers in Baltimore City, six of them city-owned facilities and seven others that are operated by local nonprofit organizations.
Officials' remarks came the same day the Biden administration announced plans for a program that aims to provide subsidized internet access to millions of Americans across the country. Twenty internet service providers have joined the effort.
"We know we have to broaden that kind of access across the country," Congressman John Sarbanes said. "We also know that telehealth services make a huge difference. During the pandemic, we needed to seize on that opportunity to deliver health care remotely to many, many people in our country, including seniors."
The measure marks the latest step in Scott's long-term goal of closing Baltimore's "digital divide," or the gulf between households that have reliable internet access and devices and those without. His administration has already pledged $35 million toward the effort.
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