During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many doctors’ offices and health care facilities were postponing appointments, elective surgeries and any care that was not related to COVID-19 or considered an emergency. Those decisions made sense as providers and healthcare facilities reserved capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, preserved needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies and reduce the spread of the virus by keeping people at home.
We’re now months into the pandemic and Rhode Island’s healthcare providers and facilities have adjusted, reopening with new safety measures and precautions all meant to keep patients and members safe. They also reopened with a consistent message – don’t put off getting the care you need, whether that be preventive care, ongoing care for chronic health conditions and surgeries that were postponed. More importantly, don’t put off needed vaccinations whether for children or adults.
Since the start of the pandemic, Rhode Island, like most other states, saw a worrisome decline in childhood immunization rates due to the drop in well-child visits. In many ways, this made sense. Parents were nervous about taking their children to the doctor’s office and many of us were under a stay at home order in the early days and weeks of the pandemic. This delay in vaccinations, however, is continuing and it is putting children at risk for serious diseases such as measles and mumps. It’s critically important that we continue to protect our children from serious, preventable diseases.
In response to the decrease in pediatric well-visits, the state created the Pediatric Primary Care Relief Program, to provide support to pediatric primary care providers. The grants served to help pediatric primary care providers re-open and meet new safety requirements so that children and families would not experience barriers to access care.
The pandemic has also impacted primary care visits with the state seeing a decline in annual visits. Like pediatric practices, primary care practices and specialist practices have taken steps and precautions meant to keep patients and staff safe, such as requiring masks, social distancing in waiting rooms, assessing for symptoms prior to the visit, and signage meant to educate about COVID-19.
These exams, as well as preventive screenings, are critical to help detect health issues either before they start, or early on, when the condition is easier to treat. This includes preventive cancer screenings such as mammograms, colon cancer screenings and Pap tests. Your primary care provider can inform you of any needed screenings.
If you are already receiving care for ongoing health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, congestive heart failure or depression, it is important that you continue to see your primary care provider to make sure these conditions are being managed properly. A lapse in care could lead to serious complications.
Your annual physical is also the setting in which many adults receive their flu shot. This is not an opportunity you want to miss, especially in a pandemic. The flu can still cause very serious health complications and kills thousands and thousands of Americans every year. The easiest step you can take to protect yourself is getting a flu shot. If you are a BCBSRI member, you can receive a flu shot at no cost.
Telehealth is also an option for people who are unable to physically visit their provider’s office. Check with your provider to see if they are able to provide care either over the phone or by video. Or, you can access BCBSRI Doctors’ Online telehealth platform. BCBSRI has extended coverage, through December 31, 2020, of medically appropriate telehealth services for primary care, behavioral healthcare or specialist care with no member cost share.
BCBSRI will continue to provide members with information and resources regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on our Keeping You Well and Well-Informed site. You can also visit the Rhode Island Department of Health website to find guidance and information on returning to the doctor and precautions that have been put in place to keep Rhode Islanders safe.
Peter S. Nakhla, M.D., MBA, CPE, FACP, is senior medical director of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.