The long-term ripple effects on Americans’ health from the nation’s focus on COVID-19 and strategies for eventually ending social distancing are among several under-covered stories that deserve attention.
For example, reporters looking for fresh angles could talk to local physicians about surgeries and regular health screenings — such as colonoscopies and cardiac stress tests — that aren’t being performed for safety reasons or because resources have been diverted to fighting the pandemic. What will this mean for the nation’s health care system in the long term?
“One of the best questions that … hasn’t been asked by reporters, is what is that we aren’t seeing, because of the focus on COVID-19?” Amesh Adalja, M.D., F.I.D.S.A., a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease, critical care and emergency medicine physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said during a March 27 AHCJ webcast on covering COVID-19. “How long can we keep our cardiology clinics closed before we see consequences … there is going to be a measurable increase in other diseases because of this.”
Though many hospitals and physicians have delayed “elective” surgeries and other procedures, Adalja said the definition of “elective” doesn’t mean that the procedures isn’t still necessary for someone’s health.
“When we talk about ‘elective’ procedures that doesn’t mean a nose job,” he said. “It means that you have some flexibility in scheduling. We are talking about biopsies and colonoscopies … and there is going to be a cost down the road” to a person’s long-term health if they can’t access these services.
Journalists also could be spending more time talking to health security experts about how the nation eventually can transition from the current level of social distancing guidelines to safely return to activities of normal daily life.
“We need a coherent strategy for how we can start moving away from social distancing, and journalists can play an important role” in facilitating that conversation, said Tara Kirk Sell, Ph.D., M.A., a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security who specializes in public policy and the health impacts of disasters and terrorism. “We need to start thinking about long-term planning … about how we will open our economy and schools.”
Sell emphasized that she wasn’t talking about meeting any near-term deadlines, but rather how journalists can report about strategies that may be effective in balancing the need for people to return to normal life and also protect vulnerable people from being exposed to the virus.
Adalja said strategies likely will rely on wide-spread availability of serological testing (blood tests detecting COVID-19 antibodies) and is not “a hard problem to solve … we have the capacity.”
One roadmap that may gain traction, according to the Washington Post, is to reopen the economy in four phases, tailored to each state’s circumstances. The stages are:
- Ensure that there is sufficient diagnostic testing capacity and critical-care beds to handle new patients;
- See sustained reduction in new cases;
- Implement a gradual easing of social distancing measures and open schools and businesses once treatments or a vaccine becomes available;
- Rebuild the public health system to deal with the next emergency.
To hear my conversation with Adalja and Sell, tune into the recorded webcast, which fielded questions from reporters ranging from these under-covered story ideas to the latest on what is known about the virus and the disease it causes.
AHCJ welcomes ideas for future webcasts on COVID-19. Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.