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Has COVID Fear Gone Too Far When It Comes To Caring For Our Health?

The corona virus pandemic has caused a lot of heartbreak and sorrow, especially as this country has passed two hundred thousand deaths, millions infected, some seriously and others with long lasting side effects from the infection.

People are afraid. That is understandable. However, Is all the fear justified? 

When it comes to being cautious, the answer is yes. However when it comes to caring for your personal health and well-being, maybe not as much.

The pandemic is causing many people to forgo routine health care because of their fears of getting infected if they go the doctor or the hospital. Some have even avoided going to the emergency department when they have signs of a serious problem such as a heart attack or stroke. And many others aren’t going to the doctor for more routine care such as for diabetes or high blood pressure.

The result of all of this delayed care is the sad reality that problems which may have been controlled or caught early—such as a cancer missed because someone didn’t get a timely screening—are going to mushroom into much more serious problems if not properly cared for. 

A recent report on JAMA Network from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston MA suggests that when proper precautions are taken by hospitals—even those providing the most complex care in the most acute settings with all of the associated surgeries, serious illnesses and intensive care—the result is that health care can indeed be administered safely while avoiding getting patients infected because they need to be hospitalized.

The researchers examined the records of 9149 patients admitted to the hospital between March 7 and May 30 2020, and subsequently followed up through June 17 of this year. Close to 7400 COVID-19 tests were performed; 697 patients were positive. 696 of those patients were considered to be infected before they came to the hospital; only one patient became positive due to what appeared to be a hospital acquired infection—and that came from a visiting spouse who was in the asymptomatic phase of their illness, and came to the hospital before visitors were restricted from entering.

8370 patients treated for conditions other than COVID were discharged,  and 11—or 0.1%—tested positive after their discharges. Only 1 of those was thought likely to be hospital acquired, however how they were exposed to the virus was uncertain.

The net result: In a hospital providing high level acute care with strict protocols and careful attention to reducing the risk of spreading corona virus to non-infected patients, the number of patients who either developed COVID-19 while in the hospital or after discharge was incredibly small. 

In contrast, when COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan China there were reports in the medical literature which focused on the high risk of acquiring an infection in hospital, and the significant impact those infections had on the patients themselves. This was especially true of patients with a prior diagnosis of cancer.

However that was in the very early stages of the pandemic. We still have a lot to learn about this illness, but at that point in time we knew almost nothing. Everything was new; everything had yet to be discovered, especially about how the virus was transmitted and what precautions could be taken to reduce the risk of someone—whether a patient or medical staff person—becoming infected in the first place. 

Now we have learned what to do to reduce the risk of transmitting infection in a medical setting, and we have implemented those lessons. 

Hospitals have taken extra precautions to reduce the spread of infection by making certain staff know the importance of personal protection, wearing masks and face shields, sanitizing/washing hands frequently, cleaning equipment, social distancing, and reducing the number of people in a clinic at any given time. 

All of these measures and increased awareness have made hospital and medical settings safer than they would have been otherwise, and safer than they were even a couple of months ago. The “hangover” that hospitals and medical offices are not safe and expose patients to high risk for infection is still with us. However, on balance reality has clearly moved to a safer place than what many think—when appropriate precautions and systems are put into place.

The net result of all of this is that we have to learn a number of new lessons, such as the fact that we are going to have to live with corona virus and the pandemic for a while. It is not going to miraculously go away, and even when a vaccine becomes available. The virus is not going to immediately disappear. It just isn’t going to happen. 

That means we need to adjust our expectations. If the virus is not going away, then we have to learn to live with the virus. We have to recognize there are parts of our lives that must be tended to, and our health is a significant example of getting back to living our lives safely. Life may not be “normal” as we used to know it, and “normal” isn’t going to happen any time soon. So that means making adjustments, taking precautions, and doing what we need to do to care for ourselves. 

If we don’t do that, and if we continue to put off necessary care for illnesses, chronic disease, and preventing serious illness such as through cancer screening, we will pay an even greater price than that inflicted by the virus itself. For example the head of the National Cancer Institute recently pointed out that thousands of people will die from cancer as a result of delayed screening. And he may be underestimating the numbers.

It’s time we recognize the seriousness of this hidden problem resulting from the pandemic, and that we address the need to do what we have to do to care for ourselves and our loved ones. We can’t continue to delay necessary medical care, and our medical care teams have to do everything they can and should do to reduce the risk for people seeking care. 

We need to make certain that everyone does their part to put confidence back into the equation because without that confidence our tragedies will multiply beyond the virus itself. And that would create even more sadness on top of what has already become an unbearable situation for too many.