We are living in an unusual time. Pandemics with significant mortality are rare but we’ve managed to be present for one. We would all like it to become history and allow us to tell our children or grandchildren what it was like, but it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to end.
If you have received the vaccine, congratulations. You’ve reduced your chance of becoming infected by 90%, and your chance of hospitalization and serious or fatal illness even further. If you’ve had COVID-19, you may also have a degree of immunity, though mild cases don’t seem to provoke a strong immune response. But there’s more to staying healthy in a pandemic than avoiding that one disease.
Unfortunately, other illnesses are not taking a holiday while we deal with the pandemic. We can’t ignore the normal lifestyle habits, risk reduction activities, and preventive screenings that we should undertake in “normal” times. But that’s exactly what we’ve seen many people do over the last year. Although visits to COVID-prepared physician offices, urgent care centers, and hospitals carry extremely low risk of infection, those visits declined significantly. Many emergency departments saw a reduction of nearly half their normal volumes.
Much of that has returned, in many cases with people whose conditions are now worse due to the delay. But it will be important as we enter an expected fall and winter surge that we avoid repeating that history. Many physicians will continue to offer tele-health visits when an in-person examination isn’t necessary, but many conditions can only be accurately diagnosed in person.
Last year also showed a marked decrease in participation in cancer screenings like colonoscopies, prostate screenings, and mammograms. No one likes having a test where the result may show cancer, and the pandemic has given people an additional excuse to put it off. But we all know that early detection is the key to successful treatment. Denial is a powerful obstacle. Now is not the time to give in to it.
Many conditions we think of as chronic may develop complications if uncontrolled by medication. For example, unmanaged high blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke, heart attacks, and vascular disease. It is asymptomatic and can only be diagnosed through measurement. When blood pressure is normalized by weight control, diet, and medications, the risks come down, too. Postponing a check-up may lead to a disabling or fatal outcome.
Working from home (WFH) has become common. The reduced activity and working close to the kitchen have had the side effect of “pandemic pounds,” with people finding that their WFH sweatpants have hidden their expansion. It’s important to note that obesity is a serious risk factor for COVID complications and mortality. Proper nutrition, weight control, and exercise are as important as ever. We can’t take on a pandemic sitting down.
Finally, exercising good judgment about COVID risk reduction is essential. Some social media rumors like taking Ivermectin can cause harm. Others, like gargling with Betadine, give false assurance, since none of them work for COVID.
A frequent commentary by celebrities and influencers is that “there hasn’t been enough vaccine research” or that the individual needs to “do more research” personally. Today, 43.5% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine, a total of 5.98 billion shots. In the current surge, nearly all deaths are among people who weren’t vaccinated. It’s hard to imagine how much more data will make people happy, but if you’re not satisfied, keep up your research until you are. The data are unlikely to change.
About Dr. Joseph Moser
Dr. Joseph Moser is the Chief Medical Officer at University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center. He has over 40 years of experience in the health care field and now oversees all of UM Charles Regional Medical Center’s doctors on staff.