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