Our country is now more than six months into the worst public health crisis we have known in over a century. More than 6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 190,000-plus documented fatalities later, what have we learned?
Truth is, we have acquired an enormous amount of actionable knowledge about the virus—how to test for and better treat it, how to prevent its spread and how to protect ourselves against it. But gaining knowledge and applying it successfully are not the same thing.
Large health systems are in a unique position to share some broad core lessons that can serve us all well going forward:
Take care of our healthcare heroes. Even our doctors and nurses who served in the military or trained in emergency medicine never imagined having to put their own lives and livelihoods on hold for such extended periods. Even after the pandemic has passed, thousands of them may experience a unique form of professional and personal post-traumatic stress disorder. We must recognize and address this by rotating them off the front lines and expanding the healthcare workforce.
Recognize that disparities are a matter of life and death. Health disparities grounded in race and ethnicity have been subject to policy discussions for decades. The disadvantaged face a perfect storm: more likely to be exposed to the virus, but less likely to have access to testing and treatment; more likely to have underlying conditions, but less likely to cope with the financial impacts of the pandemic. And perhaps soon—less likely to be able to access the vaccines that afford some level of protection.
Here comes the flu … It is always important for everyone, most certainly caregivers, to get a flu vaccination. But this year individuals must be accountable for their symptoms like never before. Stay home if you are sick and call your doctor right away if you have symptoms (telehealth calls are easier and more available than ever). Remember: flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms can be very similar.
… and sometime soon, a COVID-19 vaccine. Our nation’s handling of the pandemic to date must not presage our handling of a vaccine; the approval process must be science-driven and inspire public confidence. Distribution must initially prioritize essential workers. As more widespread vaccinations are possible, no one should have to go without due to access or affordability challenges.
End the “mask confusion.” As a nation, it took many years and multimillion-dollar public-awareness campaigns for us to wear seat belts and stop smoking in public places. Those were long-term appeals, but we do not have the luxury of time right now. The science has evolved, and there’s more evidence than ever before that wearing a mask is effective. In fact, wearing a mask must be a universally accepted norm.
Quick, reliable testing. We cannot afford an on-again, off-again commitment to COVID-19 testing; for the foreseeable future, it is an imperative. But real challenges remain: while identifying positive cases has obvious benefits, waiting five to 10 days for results almost nullifies the capacity to contain spread. We need a consistent focus on deploying convenient tests that produce reliable, rapid results and actively driving their use, particularly among high-risk populations, in hot spots and for those exposed to a known positive.
Prepare to be screened. For the foreseeable future, and perhaps indefinitely, screening in healthcare facilities and other public venues will be the new normal. When you come to a hospital or clinic, expect to have your temperature taken and answer screening questions. These are for everyone’s safety—patients and caregivers.
No healthcare professional needs to be reminded of the seriousness of what lies ahead. Let’s take what we’ve learned, be ready and willing to adapt—and build a new resolve to defeat this virus together.