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On Dec. 31, 2019, when the World Health Organization was first informed of an unidentified pneumonia in Wuhan, China, no one could have imagined the downstream effects of this virus, now known as COVID-19 or SARS-COV-2. Today, millions have witnessed the devastating effects firsthand, from the loss of loved ones, to the closing of businesses to the crises in our healthcare systems trying to absorb the numbers of those seriously ill.

Now it is a race against time, a race to protect our communities from continued loss, by following evidence-based CDC guidelines and recommendations. These guidelines are scientifically validated at effectively preventing further spread and serious disease before the natural course of virus mutations creates more unanticipated challenges. The media is covering this race closely, providing daily updates as the unprecedented situation unfolds. We are all transfixed on the discussions regarding masking, vaccines, hospitalizations, effects on education and more.

There is another more silent epidemic occurring, of which the medical community is astutely aware. With attention rightly on the more acute health concerns at hand, many people are delaying or forgoing usual preventive screenings and check-ups, unaware that this action too will create secondary downstream affects. The statistics are impressive but often not discussed.

In 2020, twice as many people died in the US from heart disease as from COVID. Death from cancer occurred almost one and a half times more than COVID. Delays in screening and treatment for breast and colorectal cancer alone is predicted to result in almost 10,000 preventable deaths, according to an article in Science magazine by Norman Sharpless, Director of the National Cancer Institute. These numbers are anticipated to increase as the pandemic persists.

Like the transmission of COVID, many steps can be taken to prevent and offset the severity of other health conditions on our community members. These steps include scheduling annual physicals, obtaining routine vaccinations, and continuing with recommended screenings such as mammograms, colon cancer evaluations, bone density checks, and evaluations of chronic conditions. Most health plans offer these preventative services at low cost or no cost because these services have proven to lower the incidence of advanced health conditions and ultimately improve quality of life. Health systems also have programs to assist with these services if uninsured or self-pay, as health equity is a number one priority.

Critical to remember is the fact that the pandemic has impacted everyone, including our children and teens in so many ways – from education to altered social interactions to scarcities of basic needs. Routine well-child visits are perfect opportunities to check in on appropriate growth, social and physical development, chronic conditions, status of age-appropriate vaccinations, and even absence or presence of mental health issues. Additionally, providers can connect parents and their children to needed community services, identified during those screening exams. The children ARE our future and we need to advocate for them as well.

So yes, Idahoans face crisis standards of care for the first time across the state in many, but not all, inpatient settings due to an unprecedented pandemic. That said, clinic doors are still open

welcoming those who are well and sick, to provide some relief to the hospital systems and to minimize the secondary effects of the pandemic. There is hope in mitigating these devastating direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 on our friends, families, and neighbors if we all take these small steps we know work based on scientific evidence. Let’s stem the tide together.

Dr. Sheila Giffen, MD is a Family Medicine Specialist and Medical Director at the Saint Alphonsus Health Alliance.

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