Preparing for a fall ‘twindemic’
Roughly six months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States—and with more than 6.5 million domestic cases as of this writing—an uncertain autumn looms for hospitals and other providers. On the one hand, new reported U.S. cases have declined dramatically in the last two months, hovering around roughly 35,000 new cases per day in recent days, or about half of the late-July peak. But with the prospect of increased exposure to infection as temperatures cool off and Americans spending more time indoors—amid recent COVID-19 outbreaks in many college towns—some experts are predicting a national surge in cases this fall, coinciding with the return of flu season.
Some hospitals are preparing for this potential convergence, dubbed a “twindemic,” by readying tests that will screen for both viruses with a single swab, while ensuring they have adequate supplies and staff for a potential surge. Other providers are launching expanded on-site influenza vaccination services including, new drive-through and walk-up options. Nationwide, hospitals have made significant strides in protecting non-COVID-19 patients from infection since this spring, allowing for the continuation of elective procedures in many facilities even during regional surges.
COVID-19 experts have widely divergent predictions about the future trajectory of the pandemic. The most dire forecasts project as many as 3,000 deaths per day by December, while more optimistic prognosticators suggest that the lessons learned since March—from provider innovations to individual safety precautions—may soften a fall surge. For hospitals, understanding and planning for a wide range of potential scenarios—and taking steps to ensure readiness for a “twindemic”—will be critical to ensuring a strong response regardless of what happens outside their four walls.
Making sense of the virtual visit plateau
The skyrocketing use of telehealth services earlier this year—propelled by both voluntary and mandatory in-person service hiatuses and widespread patient fear—may mark the biggest COVID-19 related transformation to healthcare delivery. At one point this spring, telehealth constituted 40 percent of all Medicare visits, up from 0.1 percent prior to the pandemic, the Associated Press reports.
More recently, telehealth use has leveled off, as consumers have slowly but surely grown more comfortable returning to their doctor’s office or hospital. It’s unlikely, however, that the recent gains in telehealth use will permanently recede, and MedPAC is reportedly considering permanent expansions to Medicare payment for telehealth services.
The challenge for providers this fall will be preparing for another acceleration in virtual visits if their areas experience a second wave of COVID-19 patients, all while developing a strategy for a more long-term service mix of virtual and in-person services.
- Many hospitals are taking steps to ramp up their internal COVID-19 testing capability this fall, in the wake of long delays from labs at the outset of the pandemic
- Providers in traditional vacation towns that have seen their permanent populations rise in the wake of COVID-19 are preparing for the potential of sustained increases in patient demand
- Hospitals are stepping up communications efforts to promote the safety of their facilities, as inpatient volumes remain below pre-pandemic levels