UnitedHealth Group's Dr. Ethan Berke: Why this COVID-19 surge is different + mitigating the spread 

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Ethan Berke, MD, UnitedHealth Group chief public health officer, said any COVID-19 strategy should follow three steps: take a deep breath, step back and follow the science.

In a question and answer session with media, Dr. Berke, who leads the payer's public health and internal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, said that shifting guidelines, misinformation and the surging COVID-19 omicron variant require healthcare leaders to arm Americans with accurate, empowering information. 

"With the pandemic entering its third year, who really knows what will happen next?" Dr. Berke said. "I'm very careful to predict when the next wave will be or when this one will end, but as we learn more with each wave, we get smarter and do a better job at coming up with better mitigation strategies."

7 things Dr. Berke wants patients and members to know amid the U.S. omicron surge:

1. Comparing the current COVID-19 surge to previous omicron waves in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Dr. Berke said countries are starting to witness a sharper drop-off in cases compared to the trends of other variants. With proper mitigation strategies, he said Americans can expect to see a sharp decrease in cases compared to the drawn-out trends of other COVID-19 variants. 

2. However, with the healthcare industry struggling to manage COVID-19 patients, Dr. Berke said that while the U.S. is seeing more hospital beds filled with patients, he emphasized severity as a differentiator between other surges. Because of the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters, the severity of many COVID-19 cases is largely reduced. 

3. Dr. Berke cautioned Americans in putting too much stock in COVID-19 testing data as coverage and testing availability increase. Because fewer test results will be reported to hospitals and labs, reported case figures will be more deceptive. 

4. With increased access to COVID-19 tests, Dr. Berke emphasized the "strengths and limitations" of science. "There's no perfect test out there, whether it's for COVID-19 or for cholesterol," Dr. Berke said, encouraging those especially using at-home tests to understand next steps following a positive or negative result. 

5. Dr. Berke said that for those who currently have COVID-19, mitigating spread is the top priority. While antibody treatments and pills are promising, he recommends fever-reducing medicine, hydration and eating well — all while staying connected with your primary care provider. When shortness of breath and difficulty breathing arise for more than several hours, getting a higher level of care is essential.

6. Generally, Dr. Berke said masks will continue to be a key mitigation strategy, but steered the public toward masks with higher quality filtration, especially during the omicron surge. A tight-fitting surgical mask is safer than a cloth mask, he said. 

7. The scientific community is continuing to monitor what role each variant's varying symptoms play in the study of long COVID-19. UnitedHealth Group is monitoring patients who are experiencing extended symptoms, but varied presentations make it difficult to diagnose and manage. 


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