Marylanders are no longer required to wear masks in most settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, people in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are also mostly free from wearing masks.
Does this mean the pandemic is over?
First, it’s essential to understand that the pandemic is not over. While lifting some restrictions is encouraging, there are still many non-vaccinated people in the United States, not to mention other countries with no access to a vaccine.
According to the CDC, roughly 47.3% of all Americans received one dose of a vaccine, with only 37% of Americans fully vaccinated. In Maryland, 52.9% have received one dose, and 41.9% are fully vaccinated. Additionally, some states are still reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases. Finally, there is concern about more highly infectious variants, how they might spread, and whether they may reduce vaccines’ efficacy.
As we look back over the many months we have been living in a pandemic world, here are a few of the ways that the pandemic has affected the primary care field:
• At the height of the pandemic, many people canceled their medical appointments. Understandably, patients would opt to hold off on some visits, but it is safe to return to your doctor’s office and catch up on any critical appointments and screenings that you may have missed. For instance, if you are a woman and missed your mammogram, don’t skip it and do it next year. It is vital for your long-term health to get back on track.
• The number of children receiving their scheduled immunizations has dropped dramatically. Children must see their pediatricians to check developmental milestones and perform any necessary vaccinations without delay.
• Many patients who tried telehealth during the pandemic were satisfied and have expressed that they want to continue to have that as an option for non-urgent consultations with their doctor. I believe that telehealth has a lot of value for many situations and is here to stay. It has increased health care delivery efficiency, and we will continue to offer it as an option at Gonzaga Health.
• With the staggering number of patients to treat, the pandemic magnified the shortage of primary care doctors in pediatrics and family medicine. Retired physicians and doctors with expired licenses were asked to work in several states due to the sheer volume of patients who needed care.
The Association of American Medical Colleges released a report in 2020, completed pre-pandemic, that projects that the United States will face a shortage of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033. This number is partially due to retiring physicians; however, another major factor is that the over-65 population is expected to grow significantly. In general, an aging population is likely to need more office visits and have increased health issues, which require more time and specialized care.
Primary care is the backbone of a patient’s overall health. Fortunately, in today’s medical practices, that means not just interaction with a single physician, but a primary care team of providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Practices like mine also provide access to physical therapy, occupational therapy and pain management in the same building. In recent years, the practice of medicine has evolved to incorporate interdisciplinary care in many settings. The goal is to increase awareness and access to a host of multispecialty services for all patients.
If you have not yet received your vaccine, I encourage you to do so or talk with your medical provider if you have an underlying health condition or specific concerns.
If you have children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends vaccinating all children ages 12 and older who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Gonzaga Health will soon be providing vaccination to all patients who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Masks still will be required on public transportation and in schools, airports, day-care centers and health-care facilities, such as hospitals and doctors’ offices. Local governments and individual businesses can also opt to keep mask requirements in place.
We are all anxious for a return to normalcy, and some significant steps have been made in that direction.
Please continue to follow the latest guidance, and I wish you a happy and healthy summer!
Dr. Rosario B. Gonzaga is a pediatrician who has proudly provided care for generations of families in Allegany County. She is the founder of Gonzaga Family Health, a comprehensive primary care practice for all ages, with locations in LaVale and Frostburg, Maryland.