Your Health Checkup: The Unintended Health Consequences of a Pandemic

“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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COVID-19 has disrupted practically every aspect of life on earth as we know it. The rate of infection and mortality from this coronavirus is appalling, especially in the U.S., with numbers worsening as we head into the winter flu season. There are more than 8 million cases and 220,000 deaths, perhaps reaching 400,000 by year’s end. Many hospital ICU beds are full.

Scientists have told us what to do: wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid large gatherings, wash hands, and stay outdoors as much as possible when socializing.

But so many people battle these simple measures. It reminds me of initial resistance to wearing seatbelts in cars or helmets on motorcycles. The spurious objection that these requests encroach on civil liberties is absurd. Licenses are required to drive, own a firearm, hunt, fish, and do a myriad of other things. Why are these requirements not an intrusion on civil liberties, but wearing a mask is?

In addition to the obvious impact on our daily activities, COVID-19 has exerted unintended consequences that can pose long term risks to our health. Americans have scaled back multiple health care initiatives to an alarming degree.

Vaccinations have plummeted, even as we enter the flu season. Critical childhood vaccinations for hepatitis, measles, whooping cough and other diseases have declined significantly. Measles was already increasing before this year, possibly due to the growing strength of the anti-vaccination movement. Fewer children vaccinated because of coronavirus fears could worsen the trend. Childhood immunizations fell about 60 percent in mid-April in 2020 compared to 2019, ranging from 75 percent for meningitis and HPV vaccines to 33 percent for others like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

Screening colonoscopies are almost nonexistent as are other preventive health care procedures like prostate checkups, mammograms, Pap smears and glaucoma evaluations. Routine doctor office visits have declined greatly. The potential consequences are an increase in vision loss; colon, breast, and prostate cancers; communicable diseases like measles and mumps; and reduced screening for illnesses like hypertension, diabetes, and coronary disease.

Equally or even more alarming is a decline in hospital admissions for acute illnesses like heart attacks. For example, a multicenter survey in Italy found almost a 50 percent reduction in admissions for acute heart attacks compared with the equivalent week in 2019. The decreases were associated with parallel increases in mortality and complication rates. Similar trends have been noted in England, the U.S., and other countries as well.

COVID-19 has frightened patients from seeking medical help for life threatening problems, as well as from preventive measures. We cannot let the trend continue. As we’ve heard in countless newscasts from scientists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, we as a nation must come together to fight this pandemic as a unified population.

Listen to the scientific experts, not the carnival barkers. Do as these recognized experts advise. Wear your mask and wash your hands! Get the COVID vaccination when it becomes available. Waiting for “natural herd immunity” to occur is dangerous and could result in over 2 million deaths.

And don’t forget the usual, but important, preventive measures, and seek medical help as you would have before the pandemic struck. Your life may depend on it.

Featured image: K.Yas / Shutterstock

Flu News with Scrubs Alum Sarah Chalke

Sarah Chalke, Flu Shot
Arm yourself against the flu for kids’ sake, says actress and mom Sarah Chalke. Photo by Eric Reed/AP Images on behalf of Faces of Influenza.

Flu is a big deal and it hit early and hard. But it’s not too late to get a flu shot: flu season can last as late as May. “Like all mothers, I do whatever I can to keep my son healthy—and that includes getting him immunized against the flu. I’ve learned that everyone is at risk of catching and transmitting this disease. So my family and I get annual vaccines to make sure we don’t spread the virus to him,” says actress Sarah Chalke, known for playing Dr. Elliot Reid on the hit TV series Scrubs and starring in the comedy series How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) set to premiere in April.

The widely available vaccine is a good match for circulating flu bugs and immunity kicks in after two weeks. Federal health experts recommend that everyone 6 months of age and older be immunized annually, yet fewer than half of children ages 6 months to 17 years were immunized during the 2011-2012 flu season. Flu can lead to severe complications, even death, for patients or those with whom they come into contact. Each year in the U.S., influenza and its related complications result in an average of 226,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 to 49,000 deaths.

No vaccine is perfect. To boost your defense during outbreaks, avoid crowds and keep hands away from your face because pesky flu viruses can lurk for hours on hard surfaces. Six of the grimiest places you encounter through the day include: the kitchen sink, elevator controls (especially the first floor button), shopping cart handles, purses, playgrounds, gym equipment, and the office phone, according to leading commercial cleaning franchisor Coverall Health-Based Cleaning System®.

Learn more about the flu at