Several weeks ago, I noticed a significant increase in people posting pictures of their positive COVID rapid tests on social media. It wasn’t that surprising to me as COVID case counts throughout the country have been increasing for at least the last month. Nearly 300 U.S. counties, about 9% of all of them, are now considered high risk for COVID community spread by the CDC. The number has more than quintupled since the first week of May.
After more than two years of avoiding the virus myself, it finally came for me last week. As I write this, I’ve been in isolation for more than eight days with about three days of being in bed. Luckily, I haven’t needed any medical care although I’m worried about recovery and avoiding long COVID.
This situation has me thinking about how even the more “mild” form of COVID we’re experiencing right now will continue to disrupt our lives for years to come. Many people are saying we’ll need to learn to live with it and accept that COVID will become endemic like common colds and the flu. Yet, what does that really mean for our personal lives and the healthcare industry?
Disruption will be the new normal
I was recently at a healthcare conference – ironically, where I probably got sick – where disruption was the focus of many sessions. Amazon, Walmart and tech interventions dominated the conversations. However, I couldn’t help but feel that COVID is the biggest threat to long-term viability that we face in the next two to five years.
With more knowledge of COVID, better treatment options and vaccine availability, the mortality rates from the virus have improved since last fall. We’ve reached a stage where the virus is still a threat, but it is unlikely to close down cities or even legally require everyone to mask up. Yet, a full societal recovery from COVID remains elusive. From a recent editorial in the New York Times,
“Even though far fewer people are becoming seriously ill from the virus than at its peak, consider the level of disruption to daily life that we may continue to face — the labor shortages brought on by sickness, burnout and overwork, the toll of stress and psychological fatigue on a population that has had little respite from the ever-present danger of disease.”
“Any peace we’ve reached with the virus may be only a temporary, uneasy one. It seems likely that, at least for the foreseeable future, our lives may continue to be upended by the whims of this wily, unpredictable virus, until we can advance against it.”
Going back to my own case, I’ve been unable to return to a physical workspace for eight days as I had really active symptoms. If I were working in direct patient care at a hospital or clinic, I would be off the schedule for five to 10 days at minimum.
With more healthcare workers getting sick and staying out for up to two work weeks, it’s impossible to see as many patients as normal. And with more patients battling COVID themselves, they are putting off – or can’t even schedule – surgeries, tests and other procedures. This situation is massively impacting the ability of healthcare systems and hospitals to financially recover and return to pre-2020 rates of performance.
Planning during a time of crisis
Being able to count on some type of market and labor consistency is key to planning efforts. Yet, how do you do that right now when it’s impossible to predict how COVID will impact healthcare providers in 2023 – just six months from now? Again, from the NYT op-ed:
“How can humanity effectively plan for the future if the virus keeps pulling the rug out from under us? From the beginning of the pandemic we’ve heard about adjusting to a “new normal,” but Covid’s malleability suggests it may not be just one new normal we’ll have to get used to.”
“Over the next few years, though, we may be in for a bumpy Covid ride. New variants have proven more contagious. People are burned out on doing much to avoid it. And we have no idea what the next variant may unleash upon a world already thoroughly pummeled by the disease.”
To me that sounds like a lot of short-term planning that is constantly in forms of revision. It’s not ideal and makes it challenging to think about the long-term investments that need to be made.
Where do we go from here?
In March 2020 when the pandemic was just 30 days old, I wrote the following:
“It truly feels like there are forces brewing that could result in radical transformation and a complete, ground up rethinking of our entire system. As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, it has raised many serious questions that we’ll need to grapple with over the next 12 to 18 months. Where we land on these issues will have a profound effect on what healthcare in this country becomes for the rest of our lives.”
Is the healthcare industry in a different place today? No. We’re still wrestling with profound issues:
How do we stabilize our finances?
How do we improve access for patients?
How do we make progress in nurse and physician staffing shortages?
How do we retain our workforce?
How do we plan for the future with such uncertainty?
If we can’t answer those questions soon, I’m not sure the system of healthcare we have in this country can hold.
On a personal level, there will be questions we have to wrestle with:
Do I feel safe traveling?
Do I want to go back to working in the office?
How much risk am I comfortable with?
What are the implications of long COVID?
Last year was "hot vax summer." This year it will be “hot mask summer" for many of us who will be voluntarily masking up.
I don't have a prediction on when this situation will change - those haven't gone well in the last three years - other than to say COVID will remain an industry and personal disruption for the foreseeable future.