For months, Patricia Merryweather-Arges, a health care expert, has fielded questions about the coronavirus pandemic from fellow Rotary Club members in the Midwest.
Recently people have asked, “Is it safe for me to go see my doctor? Should I keep that appointment with my dentist? What about that knee replacement I put on hold: Should I go ahead with that?”
These are pressing concerns as hospitals, outpatient clinics and physicians’ practices have started providing elective medical procedures — services that had been suspended for several months.
Late last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 48 percent of adults had skipped or postponed medical care because of the pandemic. Physicians are deeply concerned about the consequences, especially for people with serious illnesses or chronic medical conditions.
To feel comfortable, patients need to take stock of the precautions providers are taking. This is especially true for older adults, who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Here are suggestions that can help people think through concerns and decide whether to seek elective care.
Before you go in.
Give yourself at least a week to learn about your medical provider’s preparations. “You want to know in advance what’s expected of you and what you can expect from your providers,” said Lisa McGiffert, co-founder of the Patient Safety Action Network.
Merryweather-Arges’ organization, Project Patient Care, has developed a guide with recommended questions. Among them: Will I be screened for Covid-19 upon arrival? Do I need to wear a mask and gloves? Are there any restrictions on what I can bring (a laptop, books, a change of clothing)? Are the areas I’ll visit cleaned and disinfected between patients?
Also ask whether patients known to have Covid are treated in the same areas you’ll use. Will the medical staffers who interact with you also see these patients?
If you’re getting care in a hospital, will you be tested for Covid-19 before your procedure? Is the staff being tested and, if so, under what circumstances?
Hospitals, medical clinics and physicians are offering this kind of information to varying degrees. In the New York City metropolitan area, Mount Sinai Health System has launched a comprehensive “Safety Hub” on its website featuring extensive information and videos.
Mount Sinai also encourages physicians to reach out to patients with messages tailored to their conditions. People “want to hear directly from their providers,” said Karen Wish, the system’s chief marketing officer.
Don’t hesitate to press for more details, said Dr. Allen Kachalia, senior vice president of patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Where people get in trouble is when they’re afraid to bring their concerns forward.”
Wendy Hayum-Gross, 57, a counselor who lives in Naperville, Ill., had been waiting since mid-March to get blood tests that would help doctors diagnose the underlying cause of a new condition, a goiter. A few weeks ago, she decided it was time.
The hospital lab she went to, operated by Edward-Elmhurst Health, told Hayum-Gross to wear a mask and gave her a number to call when she arrived in the parking lot. Outside the front door, she was met by a staffer who took her temperature, asked several screening questions and gave her hand sanitizer.
“Once I passed that, a phlebotomist met me on the other side of the door and took me to a chair that was still wet with disinfectant. She wore a mask and gloves, and there was no one else around,” Hayum-Gross said. “When I saw the precautions they had put in place and the almost military precision with which they were carrying them out, I felt much better.”
Marjorie Helsel DeWert, 67, of Athens, Ohio, was similarly impressed when she visited her dentist recently and noticed circular yellow signs on the floor of the office, spaced six feet apart, indicating where people should stand. Staffers had even put pens used to fill out paperwork in individual containers and arranged to disinfect them after use.
DeWert, a learning scientist, came up with a patient safety checklist and distributed it to family and friends. Among her questions: Can necessary forms be completed online before a medical visit? Can I wait in the car outside until called? What kind of personal protective equipment is the staff using? And is the staff being checked for symptoms daily?
Bringing a caregiver.
Some medical centers are allowing caregivers to accompany patients; others are not. Be sure to ask what policies are in place.
If you feel your presence is necessary — for instance, if you want to be there for a relative who is frail or cognitively compromised — be firm but also respectful, said Ilene Corina, president of the Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 24, 2020
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Be prepared to wear a gown, gloves and mask. “You’re not there for yourself: You’re there to support the health care team and the patient,” said Corina, whose organization offers training to caregivers.
In Orland Park, Ill., debi Ross, an interior designer, and her sister live with her 101-year-old mother. Eight years ago, when her mother had a tumor removed from her colon, Ross and her sister wiped down every electric socket, cord, surface and door handle in her mother’s hospital room.
“Unless Mom absolutely needs [medical] care, we’re not going to take her anywhere,” Ross said. “But I assure you, if she does have to go see somebody, we’re going to clean that place down from top to bottom, I don’t care what anybody says.”
If you are not allowed into a medical facility, get a phone number for the physician caring for a loved one and make sure they have your number as well, Merryweather-Arges said. Ask that you be contacted immediately if there are any complications.
After a hospital visit.
Patients leaving hospitals are fearful these days that they may have become infected with Covid-19, unwittingly. Ask your physician or a nurse what equipment you’ll need to monitor yourself. Will a pulse oximeter and a thermometer be necessary? Will you need masks and gloves at home if someone is coming in to help you out with the transition? Can someone provide that equipment?
“Family caregivers need instructions that are clear,” said Martin Hatlie, chief executive of Project Patient Care. “They need to know who to call 24/7 if they have a question. And they need clear guidance about infection control in the home.”
If home care is being ordered, ask the agency whether they have trained staff to recognize Covid symptoms. And have home care workers been tested for Covid-19 or had symptoms?
If follow-up care is being provided via telehealth, make sure the setup works before your loved one comes home. Ask your physician’s office what kind of equipment you will need, which service they use (Zoom? Skype?) and whether you can arrange a test in advance.
Finally, as you resume activities, help protect others against Covid-19 as well as yourself. When you go out into the world again, “mask up, socially distance and wash your hands,” said Dr. Kachalia of Johns Hopkins. “And if you’re sick or have symptoms, by all means, let your doctor’s office know before you come in for a checkup.”