The COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter the United States. Experts believe that some areas like New York and Boston have already experienced the initial wave of the novel coronavirus. Other regions, such as the Sun Belt states, are still very much in the first wave.
Looking ahead, public health professionals nationwide are concerned about a resurgence of COVID-19 in locations that successfully “flattened the curve” and increased numbers of cases in places that are currently considered hot spots.
Several factors have the potential to contribute to a second wave of COVID-19 infections. As states re-open for business, social contact is on the rise. In addition, social-distancing fatigue is setting in worldwide. Statistics from Spain suggest that many new infections are stemming from people in their 20s and 30s who may be meeting at newly reopened bars and restaurants. This same dynamic is likely to occur in other countries, including the United States. As autumn approaches, school re-openings are another significant source of concern.
The PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has created a model that generates four-week COVID-19 forecasts for every county in the United States. This tool suggests that within the next month states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast may see a resurgence of the novel coronavirus.
COVID-19 and the Seasonal Flu: A Perfect Storm?
During this difficult time, the warm summer weather has provided a respite for many communities. It’s easier for people of all ages to meet with friends in their yards or in parks, as well as to eat at restaurants with outdoor seating. In a few short months, however, winter will be upon us and this spells trouble with regard to both COVID-19 and the seasonal flu.
Experts know that viruses are more likely to live outside the human body when the weather is cold. In addition, people retreat indoors during the winter. Poor ventilation can help COVID-19 spread more easily. Add in the inevitable emergence of the seasonal flu and the outlook isn’t encouraging.
Healthcare professionals will need diagnostic tests that can determine whether an individual is infected with the novel coronavirus or the seasonal flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed such a test and has requested emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In addition, this year it will be more important than ever to get a seasonal flu vaccine. This simple action could free space in hospitals to care for people who contract serious cases of COVID-19 this winter. Pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing millions of extra flu vaccines this year and the CDC has purchased seven million shots to distribute to states.
In addition, the CDC is collaborating with healthcare organizations to mobilize flu clinics that will minimize exposure to COVID-19, such as curbside or drive-through services. Experts suggest that special attention should be given to groups that are at high risk of contracting both the seasonal flu and COVID-19, such as African Americans and Hispanics. Typically, only about a third of these populations get flu vaccines each year. This is especially troubling this year.
What Steps Can Health Plans Take?
Health plans can take a number of actions to prepare for the coming months – regardless of whether members are living in a “second wave” location or in a region that is still grappling with a first wave outbreak of COVID-19. For example:
- Member Education and Communication. It’s not too early to start sending out seasonal flu vaccine reminders. Periodic outreach with information about how to minimize the chance of contracting COVID-19 is also advisable. It’s also essential to communicate with at-risk members who are currently under care management for chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
- Scenario Planning. As we’ve seen over the past few months, COVID-19 outbreaks are a regional phenomenon. Health plans must evaluate when a second wave or new hot spots may emerge in the locations that they serve. For instance, areas like Florida or Arizona typically see an influx of “snowbirds” as winter approaches in the Northern states. This travel could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. Plans should consider what their response will be for both minor and major outbreaks.
- Remote Staffing. Working from home has become the norm for many during the pandemic. In the healthcare sector, web-based care management platforms enable employees to work safely from anywhere and collaborate with colleagues in groups like utilization management, medical management, and care management.
- Flexible systems. Agility is essential in today’s environment. The regional nature of COVID-19 outbreaks means that a one-size-fits-all approach to care management won’t work. Leading health plans have recognized the importance of implementing a care management system that they can configure themselves. They can develop their own assessments, educational materials, and reports to meet their organizations’ and their regions’ unique needs.
The next few months are likely to be challenging for both health plans and their members. Everyone must become comfortable with uncertainty and find ways to minimize the risks associated with both the novel coronavirus and the seasonal flu.
To learn how care management can help organizations handle the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, download our white paper – The New World of COVID-19: It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Your Care Management Strategy.