As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall, a local doctor is encouraging the community not to wait it out before they return to their doctor’s office.
Keeping up on routine screenings and annual visits is critically important, and healthcare systems have put precautions in place to keep patients safe as they return to hospitals and clinics, according to Dr. Timothy Gatewood, who specializes in internal medicine at Community Howard Regional Health.
“There was a hope when this (COVID-19) started that things would get back to quote-on-quote normal within a few months, but clearly this is going on into the winter. And that’s kind of the fear is this gets stretched from months into probably over a year and that the things we need to do on an annual basis are falling out.
"And diseases aren’t going away; they’re just going undetected,” Gatewood said. “So we’re really encouraging people to make sure they continue with their routine healthcare screenings so things are not left undetected or worsen in the absence of detection.”
The most important screenings he encouraged people to keep up on fell into two categories. The first category was preventative cancer screenings. Patients still should be getting mammograms, colorectal screenings, prostate cancer screenings, and the like at the recommended ages and increments, he said. The other category was routine health screenings, such as cardiovascular screenings, blood pressure checks, blood sugar monitoring, and cholesterol monitoring at annual visits or routine visits.
In addition, those on medications still should be seeing their physicians for medication monitoring to ensure their underlying conditions are being optimized, Gatewwood said.
At the start of the virus, Community Howard Regional Health's outpatient clinics closed temporarily, and patients transitioned to virtual visits. However, the clinics since have reopened, and Gatewood said many patients have returned to in-person care. Some, however, still are leery of visiting a hospital or doctor’s office while cases of COVID-19 still are being reported daily.
“I think the main concern people have is leaving the house and being around other patients and concern that perhaps there’s more prevalence of patients with COVID in the clinic, but the network and probably all healthcare systems have worked hard to triage patients before they come in regarding potential COVID symptoms and to make sure there’s not an intermingling of asymptomatic and symptomatic patients,” he said.
At Community Howard, like other healthcare networks, systems have been put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including the screening of patients for symptoms of the virus, reduced wait times, reduced seating, increased cleaning and disinfecting measures, and universal mask-wearing.
Mask-wearing, Gatewood said, greatly reduces the risk of transmitting the virus.
“The thing that I really try to emphasize to people is how effective mask-wearing is. I think when COVID started it was not clear how effective that was going to be, but as the months have gone by and data has come in, really mask-wearing is critically important,” said Gatewood. “This is a virus that’s spread by the respiratory route, and universal mask-wearing indoors when outside of the home is really the best way that we’re going to prevent the spread and remain safe. I just think that message has been muddled and confusing, and it’s unfortunate because I really believe in universal mask-wearing indoors when outside of your immediate bubble is probably the best thing we can do right now to slow or prevent the spread of this.”
As flu season is arriving, the doctor also encouraged people to get a flu shot this year, saying it was “now more important than ever.” The fewer cases of the flu the hospital sees, he said, the better for the patients and the hospital system in general.
Gatewood encouraged people to do what they can to stay healthy while at home, including reducing stressors, getting exercise, and eating healthily.
Gatewood commended the community’s leadership and citizens’ efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s been interesting, but we’ve learned a lot. We’re in a great community … We’ve had great local leadership, great hospital leadership at both hospitals, and I think the community has done a really good job in handling this because it is a community issue. This is a collective response that everybody shares a part in. So as far as coming in to be seen at the office, the thing I can really emphasize is the providers wear masks. The staff wears masks. All the patients and/or family members in the office wear masks, and that provides a safe environment,” Gatewood said.