Across the globe, there are marked differences in how countries responded to the COVID-19 outbreak, with varying degrees of success in limiting the spread of the virus. Some countries learned important lessons from previous outbreaks, including SARS and MERS, and put policies in place that contributed to lower infection and death rates from COVID-19 in these countries. Others struggled to respond appropriately to the outbreak.
The United States and most of the world was not affected significantly by SARS and MERS. Hence there is a need for different perspectives and observations on lessons that can be learned from this outbreak to help develop effective strategies and policies for the future. It also makes sense to focus intently on the demographic most affected by COVID-19 – the elderly.
Medical care, for the most part, is governed by protocols that clearly detail processes to be followed for the prevention and treatment of disease. Caring for older patients requires going above and beyond the protocols. That is one of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic – a wake-up call for a more proactive approach for at-risk patients, in this case everyone over the age of 60 years.
In this context, it is important for medical outreach to continue with the senior population long after the pandemic has run its course. Many seniors, particularly those susceptible to other illnesses or exhibiting ongoing issues, would benefit from a consistent and preplanned pattern of contacts by medical professionals and agencies that work with the aging population. These proactive follow-ups can facilitate prevention and treatment and, at the same time, reduce costs that would otherwise increase when health care is reactive.
Lessons in infectious disease containment
As COVID-19 spread globally, there were contrasting responses from individual countries in their efforts to contain the disease. Unfortunately, Italy suffered from its decision to lock down only specific regions of the country initially. The leadership in Italy may have ignored the advice of medical experts and been caught off guard by the intensity of the spread of COVID-19. In fact, they might not have taken strict actions right away because they did not want their responses to be viewed as an overreaction to the disease.
The government decided to shut down areas where the infection rates were high (“red zones”) rather than implement restrictions nationally. This may have inadvertently increased the spread as Italians vacated those “red zones” for other areas of the country not yet affected by COVID-19. Italy’s decentralized health care system also played a part in the effects of the disease, with some regions demonstrating more success in slowing the reach of the disease. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the neighboring regions of Lombardy and Veneto applied similar approaches to social distancing and retail closures. Veneto was more proactive, and its response to the outbreak was multipronged, including putting a “strong emphasis on home diagnosis and care” and “specific efforts to monitor and protect health care and other essential workers.” These measures most likely contributed to a slowdown of the spread of the disease in Veneto’s health care facilities, which lessened the load on medical providers.1
Conversely, Taiwan implemented proactive measures swiftly after learning about COVID-19. Taiwan was impacted adversely by the SARS outbreak in 2003 and, afterward, revised their medical policies and procedures to respond quickly to future infectious disease crises. In the beginning, little was known about COVID-19 or how it spread. However, Taiwan’s swift public health response to COVID-19 included early travel restrictions, patient screening, and quarantining of symptomatic patients. The government emphasized education and created real-time digital updates and alerts sent to their citizens, as well as partnering with media to broadcast crucial proactive health information and quickly disproving false information related to COVID-19. They coordinated with organizations throughout the country to increase supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).2
Although countries and even cities within a country differ in terms of population demographics, health resources, government policies, and cultural practices, initial success stories have some similarities, including the following:
- Early travel restrictions from countries with positive cases, with some circumstances requiring compulsory quarantine periods and testing before entry.
- Extensive testing and proactive tracing of symptomatic cases early. Contacts of people testing positive were also tested, irrespective of being symptomatic or asymptomatic. If testing kits were unavailable, the contacts were self-quarantined.
- Emphasis on avoiding overburdening hospitals by having the public health infrastructure to divert people exhibiting symptoms, including using public health hotlines to send patients to dedicated testing sites and drive-through testing, rather than have patients presenting to emergency rooms and hospitals. This approach protected medical staff from exposure and allowed the focus to remain on treating severe symptomatic patients.
The vastly different response to the COVID-19 outbreak in these two countries illuminates the need for better preparation in the United States. At the onset of this outbreak, emergency room medical professionals, hospitalists, and outpatient primary care providers did not know how to screen for or treat this virus. Additionally, there was limited information on the most effective contact protocols for medical professionals, patients, and visitors. Finally, the lack of PPE and COVID-19 test kits hindered the U.S. response. Once the country is on the road to recovery from COVID-19, it is imperative to set the groundwork to prepare for future outbreaks and create mechanisms to quickly identify vulnerable populations when outbreaks occur.
Senior care in future infectious disease outbreaks
How can medical providers translate lessons learned from this outbreak into improving the quality of care for seniors? The National Institute on Aging (NIA) maintains a website with information about healthy aging. Seniors and their caregivers can use this website to learn more about chronic diseases, lifestyle modifications, disease prevention, and mental health.
In times of a pandemic, this website provides consistent and accurate information and education. One recommendation for reaching the elderly population during future outbreaks is for NIA to develop and implement strategies to increase the use of the website, including adding more audio and visual interfaces and developing a mobile app. Other recommendations for improving the quality of care for seniors include the following:
1. Identify which populations may be most affected when future outbreaks occur.
2. Consider nontraditional platforms, including social media, for communicating with the general population and for medical providers worldwide to learn from each other about new diseases, including the signs, symptoms, and treatment plans. Some medical professionals created specific WhatsApp groups to communicate, and the World Health Organization sent updated information about COVID-19 to anyone who texted them via WhatsApp.3
3. Create a checklist of signs and symptoms related to current infectious diseases and assess every vulnerable patient.
4. Share these guidelines with medical facilities that treat these populations, such as senior care, assisted living and rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and outpatient treatment centers. Teach the staff at these medical facilities how to screen patients for signs and symptoms of the disease.
5. Implement social isolation strategies, travel and visitor restrictions, and testing and screening as soon as possible at these medical facilities.
6. Recognize that these strategies may affect the psychological and emotional well-being of seniors, increasing their risk for depression and anxiety and negatively affecting their immunity and mental health. Additionally, the use of PPE, either by the medical providers or the patient, may cause anxiety in seniors and those with mild cognitive impairment.
7. Encourage these medical facilities to improve coping strategies with older patients, such as incorporating communication technology that helps seniors stay connected with their families, and participating in physical and mental exercise, as well as religious activities.
8. Ask these medical facilities to create isolation or quarantine rooms for infected seniors.
9. Work with family members to proactively report to medical professionals any symptoms noticed in their senior relatives. Educate seniors to report symptoms earlier.
10. Offer incentives for medical professionals to conduct on-site testing in primary care offices or senior care facilities instead of sending patients to hospital emergency rooms for evaluation. This will only be effective if there are enough test kits available.
11. Urge insurance companies and Medicare to allow additional medical visits for screening vulnerable populations. Encourage the use of telemedicine in place of in-office visits (preferably billed at the same rate as an in-office visit) where appropriate, especially with nonambulatory patients or those with transportation issues. Many insurance companies, including Medicare, approved COVID-19–related coverage of telemedicine in place of office visits to limit the spread of the disease.
12. Provide community health care and integration and better coordination of local, state, and national health care.
13. Hold regular epidemic and pandemic preparedness exercises in every hospital, nursing home, and assisted living facility.
Proactive health care outreach
It is easier to identify the signs and symptoms of already identified infectious diseases as opposed to a novel one like COVID-19. The United States faced a steep learning curve with COVID-19. Hospitalists and other medical professionals were not able to learn about COVID-19 in a journal. At first, they did not know how to screen patients coming into the ER, how to protect staff, or what the treatment plan was for this new disease. As a result, the medical system experienced disorder and confusion. Investing in community health care and better coordination of local, state, and national health care resources is a priority.
The senior citizen population appears to be most vulnerable to this virus and may be just as vulnerable in future outbreaks. Yet the insights gained from this pandemic can lead to a more comprehensive outreach to senior patients and increased screenings for comorbidities and future contagious diseases. An emphasis on proactive health care and outreach for seniors, with a focus on identifying and treating comorbid conditions, improves the medical care system overall and may prevent or slow future community outbreaks.
Dr. Kasarla is a hospitalist with APOGEE Physicians at Wise Surgical at Parkway in Fort Worth, Tex. He did his internal medicine residency at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, Chicago. Readers can contact him at [email protected]. Dr. Devireddy is a family physician at Positive Health Medical Center, Kingston, Jamaica. Contact him at [email protected].
1. Pisano GP et al. Lessons from Italy’s response to coronavirus. Harvard Business Review. 2020 Mar 27. https://hbr.org/2020/03/lessons-from-italys-response-to-coronavirus.
2. Tu C. Lessons from Taiwan’s experience with COVID-19. New Atlanticist. 2020 Apr 7. https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/lessons-from-taiwans-experience-with-covid-19/.
3. Newman LH. WhatsApp is at the center of coronavirus response. WIRED. 2020 Mar 20. https://www.wired.com/story/whatsapp-coronavirus-who-information-app/.