Why it's time hospital leaders snap out of 'COVID fatigue'

Hospital leaders are ready for COVID-19 to go away and never come back. Becker's editorial statistics confirm interest in COVID-19 content has fallen in recent months. 

Ashley Drews, MD, system epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention and control at Houston Methodist Hospital, said U.S. hospitals are far from finished with COVID-19. 

"People who've tried to make predictions about what will happen with COVID have been proven wrong repeatedly. I certainly think that COVID will be here and it remains to be seen how much the variant mutates from its current level," Dr. Drews said, noting future effects of COVID-19 depend on whether it "becomes more virulent, or shifts and [and becomes less] neutralized by our current immunity [offered] by natural prior infection and vaccination."

Danny Branstetter, MD, interim chief medical officer of Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, and medical director of infection prevention and infectious diseases at Wellstar Health System in Atlanta, said hospital leaders must push through what he calls "COVID fatigue" and get serious about not only planning for the next possible wave of mutated infectious viruses but also what else might be coming down the pike. 

Further, he said with all eyes on avian flu as well as infectious disease outbreaks in other areas of the world — dengue, zika, ebola, to name a few — the U.S. could be one air traveler away from another healthcare disaster.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Question: Why do you say the next infectious disease crisis could spread by plane travel?

Dr. Danny Branstetter: COVID really brought the world's attention to one single disease. But there are plenty of other diseases that have yet to have a global impact, but they are absolutely increasingly spreading.

Think about the amount of global travel that goes on every day. One person, one plane trip increases the risk that something will be brought here. So we need to keep an eye on all those diseases that seem like they are "all over there."

What's the transmission risk of each disease? What do we do to detect it? How do we treat it? What do we do to prevent the spread? If we find something and are able to keep it localized, that will be because we took the time now to be prepared.

Further, doctors should be reminding people who are going to travel, particularly internationally, that they have to protect themselves from coming in contact with a disease that isn't spreading here. It may be just as simple as paying attention to water safety and food. 

Q: In light of what you refer to as "COVID fatigue" in the community, what should hospital leaders and clinical providers focus on now?

DB: What's next is diligence. Yes, patients have to be diligent about how they behave if they have any viral symptoms. But it's also up to physicians to have conversations with patients who have risk factors far before they might even get sick. Say, "I see you have risk factors for diabetes, heart disease or COPD." These can be worsened by COVID. Make sure these patients stay up to date on vaccines and offer any educational information they need to stay safe.  

Patients have COVID fatigue too. So a doctor bringing up the topic of risks and vaccines will bring the importance of these issues top of mind.

Q: What's the most concerning thing about being an infectious disease expert now?

Dr. Ashley Drews: Vaccine hesitancy is one of the biggest things that's really frustrating. We have such great options to prevent a lot of these infections. But people have become so distrustful of medicine and so concerned, particularly about vaccines, that we're not able to reach the full [vaccination] potential.  

DB: I think the lessons of COVID are many and I'm worried these lessons will be lost very easily because they are not often seen favorably. Masking, vaccines — it's been a difficult few years for everyone. We all want to put that all behind us. But I hope we carry forward the knowledge that we gained. Something like this all could happen to us rather rapidly again. We all have to do our part to make sure that doesn't happen.

Q: What's your biggest fear when it comes to the world of infectious diseases?

AD: Fear of a future overwhelming pandemic, where we do not have the supplies and resources to take care of the patients who need our help. We went into healthcare because we want to help people. To be in a position like we were at the start of the pandemic, where resources were limited and we were not able to actually help the people who needed us — that happening again would be my biggest fear. Nobody wants to be in that type of situation again.

Q: Is there any good news to share on the infectious disease front?

DB: We're in a fortunate situation where we have resources to rapidly develop detection tests, and we have the materials and supplies to be able to provide protective equipment for healthcare providers and the general public. 

And, like I said, it's important that we understand how these diseases get transmitted and how to prevent spread in terms of isolation and quarantine. Let's do what we can to keep a local situation from spreading vastly to the rest of the world.


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