The chairs in the waiting room are placed 6 feet apart and all other furniture has been removed. There are no magazines to read while you wait and everyone is wearing masks. But some things have not changed, such as the care you’ll receive when you visit your physician’s office or the need to be there in the first place.
“An unintended side effect (of COVID-19) was that people thought hospitals, emergency departments and entire healthcare systems were unsafe places to be, so they ended up avoiding them,” explained Robert Corley, M.D., medical director of the emergency department at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-St. Charles and medical director of the St. Charles City Fire Department.
But experts say those fears are unfounded.
“I think the entire healthcare environment is safer than it’s ever been,” said Gregory Branham, M.D., chief medical officer for BJC West County Hospital.
Hilary Babcock, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St. Louis and BJC HealthCare, noted, “When patients come in for care they should plan to come in wearing a mask and they should expect to see that their providers and other patients and visitors will be wearing masks as well. The masking that everyone is doing – both patients and healthcare providers – minimizes the risk of not only COVID-19 transmission but also for flu and other respiratory viruses, anything with a respiratory transmission.”
For that reason, Babcock and others think many of the precautions in place today will continue, perhaps indefinitely.
“Masks are becoming very commonplace and accepted, even expected, and I suspect to a degree that will continue even past this pandemic,” Corley said. He also pointed to good hand washing and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as needing to remain in the healthcare conversation.
While COVID-19 brings a fear of the unknown, Corley said it’s important to address health concerns as they arise. “Some conditions, if we don’t address them, will not be as treatable as they would have been if caught early,” he said.
To that point, Branham noted that guidelines for preventative measures are there for a reason. “If you had an ache or pain or you put off something like a colonoscopy over the last few months, now might be the time to reconsider and start doing those things.”
Acknowledging patient concerns, Corley advised, “Don’t be excessively afraid of things that are safe. If you are sick, go to the hospital. The emergency room, the hospital are safe places for patients right now. There are tremendous precautions in place, steps we’ve never taken altogether before and it’s widespread and we’re very vigilant.”
His advice extends to social interactions as well.
“It’s OK to socialize carefully with people – wear a mask, social distance, but interact,” Corley said. “Our psychological health is very important, and I think a lot of people have really felt the effects of isolation for many months. If we can be careful and avoid unnecessary contact, wear a mask, avoid hand contact and minimize our risks between each other, we can appropriately interact – and that will be healthier for our psyches and overall well-being.”
What experts don’t advise is waiting for a vaccine, which could be years in the making.
“There are multiple vaccine candidates that are moving into trials now,” Babcock said, “and it would be great to have a safe, effective vaccine the sooner the better. But realistically speaking, it usually takes years to develop a vaccine against a new infection, and then to be able to test that vaccine both for safety and efficacy, and then to be able to ramp up manufacturing and production to be able to make enough vaccine for everyone who needs it.
“I would be very surprised if we had a vaccine this year. It would be really pretty remarkable honestly if we had a vaccine next year.”
Meanwhile, there is one vaccine she thinks everyone needs.
“This fall, it will be very important for everyone to get their flu vaccine so we aren’t confused about whether they have the flu or COVID-19,” Babcock said.
In St. Louis, flu season begins in October and continues through March and sometimes into April.
“I recommend getting your flu shot in October or November,” Babcock said. She noted that it takes about two weeks to develop immunity after receiving the flu vaccine. “So even if you get the vaccine in February, you’ll still have protection in March.”
On the advice of the experts, people should also continue to practice good hand hygiene, socially distance when possible and wear masks in public when social distancing is not possible. “Those precautions also have significant impact on the spread of influenza,” Babcock explained. “So, it is possible that we will have less influenza circulating if everyone gets their vaccine and continues to follow these practices.”