Lessons from COVID-19

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It’s been a tough several months. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone in many different ways. Despite the losses and challenges, an event as far-reaching as a pandemic can unexpectedly teach us a few things. Here are some of the lessons, according to experts.

We need to improve hand hygiene.

“Hand hygiene is important, and to wash hands regularly: before eating, after you’ve been out and about in public and before you touch your face,” said physician Helen Jacoby, infectious disease specialist with St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse. “Stay away from big social events, like a concert.”

Whether it’s flu season or a pandemic, proper hand hygiene makes a huge difference in transmission.

Jacoby credits handwashing, along with social distancing, as key to flattening the curve and helping prevent the worst outcome of infection spread from coming true. But handwashing must include lathering the hands with soap and scrubbing for 20 seconds before rinsing and drying.

Vaccines are important.

“We’re all hoping so much for a COVID vaccine,” Jacoby said. “This stresses the importance of vaccines for illnesses for which we do have vaccines. With the polio epidemic, all we wanted was a vaccine. Now we want one for the novel coronavirus. We need to get vaccinated so we don’t have unnecessary outbreaks for measles, pertussis and more. We’ve become accustomed to being protected from communicable illnesses and COVID has reminded us [of the importance of vaccines]. The only illness that’s been eliminated completely was small pox. But there are regular outbreaks of measles in communities where there’s low vaccinated.”

We need to stop presenteeism.

“Presenteeism” was coined to describe workers who show up at the job even though they’re sick. Instead of touting this as a good work ethic, employers need to create an environment where employees feel secure enough in their position that they can take time off for illness as needed.

“Try to avoid exposing other people to your illness,” Jacoby said. “I wish every workplace had sick days available.”

Not allowing employees to take time off is shortsighted. It actually costs employers more in the long-run, she said.

We need to improve our immune systems.

The job of the immune system is to protect us from disease. Physician Az Tahir, who practices holistic medicine at High Point Wellness in Syracuse, said that supporting immune function can improve one’s chances of not becoming infected and, if that does happen, recovering better.

“Some people’s immune systems are strong,” Tahir said. “How to build a strong immune system is about eating healthy foods, drinking clean water, having positive thoughts, loving yourself and others, getting enough rest, physical and intellectual exercise and getting enough rest.”

Tahir added that vitamin supplementation may help support good health, such as zinc and vitamins C and D.

We need to be better prepared.

Numerous healthcare organizations were short on personal protective equipment (PPE), among other supplies and equipment.

“Pandemics come again and again,” Tahir said. “We should be ready for these things. Everyone ignored it until it’s too late. I hope this is not forgotten and we get ready.”

Kim Townsend, president and CEO of Loretto, thinks of the pandemic as an event that although unforeseen and unwanted, that can help healthcare providers see where the system falls short and become better adept at caring for patients in future events that are similar.

“Our lesson coming out of this is that you can be committed to being highly prepared, but even if you’re committed to it you have to anticipate in a pandemic or some other natural disaster that despite your best efforts to be highly prepared, it can be extremely challenging,” Townsend said.

We need to seek accurate information.

YouTube videos, forwarded social media posts, anecdotal accounts and many other sources of information do not hold the same weight as peer-reviewed, double-blind studies upon which the information from reputable sources is based.

“I encourage people to check with their local health department or a government website, like the New York State Department of Health rather than Facebook,” said physician Joan Newell, with Port City Family Medicine in Oswego. “The CDC has been slow to update and it’s been harder to navigate. And it’s not state-specific. The different systems of healthcare are sharing resources like never before.”

We need to become more self-sufficient with food.

“We like the efficiency of going to the most efficient of producers, but as a country, we need to identify industries where we want some homegrown capacity,” said Townsend, the CEO at Loretto. “I think we’ve done that with our food supply chain. Food sufficiency is an area where we want to have some capacity.”

Although not everyone can garden, anyone can maintain a good stock of food at home.

Exacerbated by job loss, food access became an even bigger concern, especially in the light of food availability once people began hoarding food, and supply chains for dairy, meat, and other good became disrupted.

Stocking up doesn’t necessarily mean dropping a few hundred dollars for food at once. Picking up a few extra items each shopping trip can quickly build up a supply.

Stocking up on healthful, affordable foods with a long shelf life. It’s good to build up a supply such as this for any emergency that can limit food access such as job loss, blizzard or other event. These could include canned fish, frozen fruits and vegetables, canned low-sodium soup, frozen meat, whole grain pasta and brown rice.

We need to make lasting changes in procedures.

“In the future every business will be in tune to infection control practices,” Townsend said. “Every business is going to be in tune to how they operate in terms of their own preparedness for challenges that come up. Every business is going to be looking at ways to not only make customers feel like they’re having a high-quality experience but likewise the importance of feeling safe when having that experience.”

We’re pretty good at helping out.

Many companies and individuals in New York have changed many of their daily routines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Almost down to the person, New Yorkers stayed home for more than two months,” Townsend said. “That’s why we’ve seemingly come out of the other side from the peak: because of the sacrifice. It’s very inspiring the lengths to which people will go to keep themselves and others safe.”

Whether sewing masks at home as individuals or pivoting as companies to make helpful products to fight COVID, many Americans found ways to participate.

Things didn’t go as badly as they could have.

Healthcare providers stayed up-to-date enough to effectively advise their patients.

“In so many ways, the systems work,” said Newell, the physician with Port City Family Medicine in Oswego. “The New York State Department of Health system worked. We’re all connected electronically through our prescriber IDs and state license. They can contact each person and they can send emails. You get a link and have to confirm you receive it and it’s tied to your license. I need that active so I can practice every day. They send updates on any changes. They can tailor that. Today I got an email that’s specific to the fact that I’m a provider in Oswego County.”

She added that the Health Department’s flu update system was already in place, making it easier to plug in COVID-19 information.

“We’re not done leaning,” Newell said. “This isn’t over. We still have more to learn.”