Our new normal means coexisting with COVID. In my role as CEO of Atlantic Health System and as a member of the board of trustees of the American Hospital Association, I am frequently asked to predict when and under what conditions life in New Jersey will go back to normal. I use those opportunities to stress the actions we can take now – as the initial outbreak tapers off in the Garden State – to help avoid future surges.
At the community level, it means being proactive about your health needs, seeking care for chronic and emergency conditions, getting vaccinated for the flu, and following social distancing guidelines as things reopen.
At the state level, expanded testing capabilities and contact tracing will be key to controlling the spread of COVID-19 and making sure infected people are isolating to protect others.
If we don’t do those things, if people ignore the guidance on what they need to do … we’re going to see another surge. That would be a very scary thing.
What the system got right
Early predictions on the possible spread of the virus painted a dire picture. As Atlantic Health System ramped up capacity for COVID-19 patients by turning existing hospital units into intensive care units, the state imposed social distancing regulations and severe restrictions on movement and business operations. These actions were critical to ensuring the health care system wasn’t overrun and that medical centers could retain the ability to care for every patient.
One of the things we learned as a community is to listen to the science and make sure we follow that guidance, because it does really work.
Facing a novel virus, the Atlantic Health System team mobilized all its talent to innovate, adapt to different roles, and learn which treatments and therapies had positive results.
The system’s laser focus on clinical excellence and access to care before the pandemic worked in its favor during the crisis as well, and not just for COVID patients. Individuals with many other illnesses also continued to receive safe and extraordinary care in our hospitals and physician offices.
Heading off another surge
There are three focus areas for the near-term future of our “new normal” that will help slam the brakes on any surge in COVID-19 later this year.
Get a flu shot. Increasing the number of people who are vaccinated for the flu is particularly important this year, since a normal flu season often causes serious illness and taxes health care resources. We need to get levels of immunization way up, because we want to tamp down the flu this coming winter.
Take care of your health needs now. Unfortunately, many people who have stayed away from the health care system out of fear of exposure are already paying a terrible price. Atlantic Health System is seeing evidence of this, not only in the severity of illnesses in its Emergency Departments and doctors’ offices, but in pre-hospital emergency services.
Our paramedics are pronouncing deaths in the home at twice the normal rate. In many cases, because chronic care visits have been delayed and individuals have waited too long to address serious symptoms. Get the care you need today. We are trained to keep you safe.
Social distance and mask in public. These guidelines have kept countless people safe throughout a global pandemic. While we wait for a vaccine and herd immunity, we need everyone to continue to practice the safety measures we know to be effective as things reopen.
Are elective procedures safe?
By the end of May, elective surgical procedures will begin again in New Jersey, as per a recent executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy. Along with empowering doctors and patients to schedule much-needed procedures, the safe and effective care we will provide during these surgeries will give people confidence that it’s time to return to the health care system.
The thing people miss is that our hospitals and doctors’ offices and ambulatory sites here at Atlantic before COVID were very safe. And during the surge, they were also very safe.
We are taking additional precautions on top of already stringent safety measures, including screening and masking for anyone entering a medical center, special attention to social distancing, new procedures for social distancing in waiting rooms, using technology for disinfection, and adjustments to air handling and filter cleaning. When data begins to emerge, you’ll see more evidence of how safe it has been, but clearly that was always the case.
An end to COVID-19
It’s as black and white as simply having a vaccine. But despite encouraging recent news around clinical trials, most experts predict a vaccine is still at least a year away. Similar unknowns surround recent developments in both treatments and testing for antibodies. We’ve had some positive results in dealing with symptoms in some patients, but there is no known silver-bullet antiviral drug.
We are entering a new normal, but that’s necessarily a horrible thing.
From what I see at Atlantic Health System and through my involvement with the American Hospital Association, I remain hopeful about the future. Out of bad things, always comes a lot of good. The evidence: the outpouring of support from the community and the incredible teamwork and innovation we’ve witnessed.
Brian Gragnolati is president and CEO of Atlantic Health System.