Social media is peppered with postings about the experience of sheltering at home during the lockdown for COVID-19. There’s advice on trimming hair and teaching your kids math that you don’t remember. We’re getting used to seeing family and work associates displayed like the opening screen of the Brady Bunch. Still, it’s difficult learning to adapt to a serious pandemic disease for which the global response is an unprecedented lockdown of most of our lives.
COVID-19 has an extremely wide range of severity that adds to the dilemma. We all read the statistics; we know that once most of us have been tested, the mortality rate may turn out to be under 1%, according to research from Columbia University. But that’s up to 10 times higher than that of the flu, and it’s highly infectious. We read daily about people whose lives it has claimed, and maybe we have known some.
So it’s frightening, and if we’re healthy and can do it, staying home as much as possible makes sense. But what if we have an illness other than COVID-19? Unfortunately, none of the serious conditions from which people also suffer have taken time off in deference to the coronavirus. But many people who have these conditions have been taking time off from tending to them.
Visits to physicians, urgent care centers and hospital emergency departments have dropped sharply. And they’re staying down, by 40% to 50%. That could mean we were over-utilizing these health care resources before COVID-19. But instead, studies are showing that people are avoiding hospitals despite worrisome symptoms, fearing they may be become infected there with the coronavirus.
In fact emergency department physicians are seeing people whose illnesses have advanced beyond the point when they should have come in. Chest pain, abdominal pain, stroke symptoms, burns, trauma — all of these may result in permanent injury and worse if not diagnosed and treated promptly. Yet people are putting themselves at this risk because they perceive the risk of COVID-19 is greater.
To avoid becoming victims of our own fears, it’s important to know the measures that hospitals are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Patients coming to the emergency department are immediately screened and separated into physically separate sections based on whether they may have COVID-19 symptoms. Everyone receives a face mask; their use is mandatory for everyone inside the hospital.
Staff are required to stay home or seek care if they develop symptoms. On entering the hospital, everyone’s temperature is taken and people are sent out if it’s elevated. Inpatient areas are separate for COVID and non-COVID patients. A no-visitors policy avoids that potential source of infection. Cleaning practices are enhanced and stringent.
Much has been made of the heroism of our first responders and front-line nurses and providers, and the appreciation is well-deserved. They face risks by caring for their COVID patients but they do not take unnecessary chances. They are highly-trained professionals and are meticulous about their safety and that of their patients. They wear appropriate personal protective equipment in all contacts with patients whose COVID status is positive or isn’t known. This protects them but also protects non-COVID patients from transmission by staff.
No one can guarantee that we won’t acquire COVID-19 in a hospital, or anywhere else. However, robust measures are taken to prevent it in a hospital. It’s how we can come in every day and work here. Putting it bluntly, to risk dying at home to avoid the extremely small risk of acquiring COVID-19 here is a terrible decision. Let’s get the care we need.
The writer is the chief medical officer at UM Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata.