Convalescing in the Era of COVID-19

by Carley Fisher, WFU JD Candidate ’21

COVID-19 reached U.S. shores sometime early this year; the first laboratory confirmed test was discovered on January 20, 2020 and reported to the CDC two days later.  To date, the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen to over 8 million, with over 200,000 lives tragically lost.

The end of the disease is not yet in sight, and while countries have remained innovative in their approach to caretaking, an early concern still exists: will patients be able to obtain hospital access? This question is as important to non-COVID-19 related patients as it is to COVID-19 patients, and the issue becomes especially acute in the face of a pandemic surge.

According to an article in the Washington Post, thirty percent of adults in the U.S., roughly 76 million people, live in locations where patients could overwhelm intensive-care beds if just two in ten adults were to fall ill with COVID-19. Additionally, the article notes that critical-care specialized physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists are also in short supply, and face the added risk of being “thinned by illness and quarantine.” With a vaccine unlikely to appear in mass production until 2021, hospitals do their best to prepare via drills and continue to encourage citizens to socially distance.

While average Americans do their part to stop the flow of the disease, those afflicted by diseases other than COVID-19 face their own concerns related to hospital access. For comparison, in 2016, a little over a tenth of the population required a hospital stay, with the average length of admission being a little under five days. With the exception of newborns, patients generally skewed towards the older end of the population. Over half the patients were forty-five and older, and a quarter of the patients were sixty-five and older (which, in 2019, is an at-risk population for Covid-19). The median income of patients was spread evenly among four quartiles, but Medicaid was the expected primary payer of nearly two-thirds of patients.

This year, these non-COVID afflicted potential patients are facing a multitude of COVID-19 related hurdles including restricted access to health care facilities, the risk of infection, and limited visiting rights. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum highlighted the tragic consequences of these obstacles, as in the case of a New York man who died earlier this year after suffering a heart attack but was cleared by emergency medical technicians who warned that hospitals were not a good place to be. Other patients with serious afflictions such as breast cancer are being forced to stoically await treatment after facing COVID-related delays. A recent survey by the American Cancer Society found that nearly one in four cancer patients are facing delays in health care due to the pandemic. Similar stories have arisen throughout the country, and these tragedies highlight a growing issue: delays have affected access to in-person appointments, availability of imaging, access to chemo and surgery, and other services. These issues are serious, and Zoran Lasic, a New York interventional cardiologist, fears that “the toll on non-Covid patients will be much greater than Covid deaths.”

              With no easy answers to these issues, patients facing treatment delays are encouraged to avoid COVID-19 risk factors, focus on maintaining their physical and mental health, and seek second opinion about their treatment plans. For those on the frontline, giving up is not an option, as Lisa Rosenbaum proudly proclaimed, “Covid or no Covid, we are still here to care for you.”

Image Credit: “Hospital Unit Shifts Gears to Care for COVID-19 Patients.” by Fort Belvoir Community Hospital is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

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