With more than 50% of Californians fully vaccinated for COVID-19, it’s important that we start thinking about health care beyond the pandemic. With the highly contagious Delta variant spreading rapidly, we also need to continue the effort to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. This is especially true in the communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and with the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy. While we continue to do whatever it takes to get vaccines in arms and put the pandemic behind us, we need to start getting back to routine health care that many of us put on hold during the shutdowns and social distancing policies. Such routine care will save lives.
Vaccines have long been an important part of routine health care. COVID-19 has shown the life-saving importance of vaccines for people of all ages, and we must continue to reinforce the message that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best tool we have to get past the pandemic. Unfortunately, vaccination numbers for COVID-19 are lower for Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles County compared to other race and ethnic groups. I recognize that some communities have valid concerns based on history, but vaccine hesitancy is also based on false information distributed across social media and other channels. Primary care physicians, as trusted sources of information, must help inform their patients that the vaccines we currently have are safe and highly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death.
With sustained COVID-19 vaccine advocacy, we can also return to other routine wellness and preventive care visits. That includes ensuring children are getting routine vaccines for preventable illnesses. We have come too far with immunizations to regress to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. Parents should also make sure that children receive appropriate developmental screenings that can help detect and treat issues in a timely manner.
An Urban Institute report found that 36% of nonelderly adults delayed or did not get care due to the pandemic. Some worried about exposure to COVID-19, while for others, their providers limited services during the pandemic. The same report found that nearly a third of the adults who delayed or went without care reported negative effects on their health, which impacted their ability to work or perform daily activities.
Everyone must return to routine exams and tests to avoid further negative health outcomes. Regular check-ups with a doctor are important to effectively manage chronic health conditions and to screen for cancer and other conditions while lifesaving treatment is still possible. For those who are still concerned about visiting a doctor’s office, the pandemic has provided an accelerated adoption of telehealth services. Telehealth provided a number of benefits during the pandemic. It reduced the risk of COVID-19 transmission, it reduced the strain on health care facilities, which were often overburdened due to the pandemic, and it helped patients maintain continuity of care while also maintaining social distancing restrictions.
This is a service that should continue well beyond the pandemic. It eliminates so many barriers to care, including transportation, childcare and missed work hours. Of course, efforts must be made to ensure that everyone can take advantage of telehealth, which can mean providing access to Wi-Fi. For instance, the L.A. Care/Blue Shield Promise Community Resource Centers located across Los Angeles County offer free telehealth hubs equipped with Wi-Fi, a laptop, and a printer.
The benefits of telehealth was just one lesson learned during the pandemic. We also learned the effectiveness of using trusted sources of information in spreading the truth about public health concerns. Those sources aren’t limited to celebrities. People want to hear from their health care providers, their faith leaders, and frankly, their friends and family.
This brings me back to vaccinations. It will require a wide-ranging effort to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. In addition to trusted sources of truth, businesses of every kind can play a role, whether it be by hosting mobile vaccine clinics, giving employees time off to get vaccinated, or providing information to help spread the facts about vaccines. We want to return to some sense of normalcy, but with the Delta variant assaulting those who remain unvaccinated, we must make sure everyone is armed with facts. And the facts are clear – vaccines save lives.
Richard Seidman, MD, MPH is chief medical officer for L.A. Care Health Plan.