Unrelated health issues developed unnoticed during the pandemic
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Various facets of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected health in a variety of ways that healthcare providers did not expect at its onset.
While illnesses from coronavirus captured the world’s attention, other health issues developed unnoticed.
One of the reasons is that routine and preventive care plummeted.
“At the height of the pandemic, outpatient office visits were down 60% and that is pretty consistent across the country,” said physician Jane Salamone, executive medical director of Rochester Regional Health’s Primary Care Institute.
That means many people skipped regular physical examinations. All health screening visits ceased entirely for weeks. Some patients skimped on care for chronic health issues like diabetes and hypertension. Even after the quarantine was lifted, many patients feared visiting the hospital or doctor’s office.
“We’ve seen at our acute care facilities an uptick of intakes to conditions not related to COVID,” Salamone said. “For the past year and half, they’re not taking care of their diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension and we’re seeing manifestations of those. For years to come, we’ll see the fallout from the decreased number of health maintenance screenings and lack of attention to chronic conditions.”
She also fears that missed screenings for breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer may result in an increase in undiagnosed cancer. Salamone has noticed that mental health has suffered since the pandemic began.
“There’s an increase in depression and anxiety,” she said. “It spans all ages. Young people have seen their lives change dramatically. Parents were stressed about teaching their kids while working at home. Elderly people who are at high-risk couldn’t see their family members for quite a long time.”
Rochester Regional has been working on its outreach to encourage patients to return to their previous healthcare regimen.
As a positive result of the pandemic, telehealth has helped more people connect with healthcare providers for routine matters. Before COVID-19, “there wasn’t a good impetus to get telehealth going,” Salamone said.
Like many providers, Rochester Regional is still offering telehealth to help increase access to care when applicable. Topics like mental health, skin rashes and general patient education can often be handled through telehealth.
Debra Kostiw, owner of No Place Like Home Senior Care in Henrietta, said many older adults have struggled in a variety of ways during the pandemic, including physically, since they lacked a means of engaging in physical activity such as at a senior center or gym.
“They’re weaker,” she said. “A lot of older adults lost bone mass. They’ve gone downhill significantly.”
She added that without mental stimulation and socialization, many older adults experienced cognitive decline. Staying secluded for months was harder on older adults who may not have as many social connections, since many relatives and friends have passed away. They may also lack means of reaching out to others remotely, such as a tablet or smartphone. Or they may feel like calling others on the telephone makes them burdensome.
Some older adults rely upon programs like Meals on Wheels for both nutrition and a friendly check-in. Since senior centers closed last year, the programming older adults have missed out on the socializing and stimulation to which they were accustomed.
“During the pandemic, they were not physically, socially or mentally as active,” Kostiw said. “If you even neglect one of those, you have significant decline. If you put all of those together, it’s a tsunami.”
She encourages relatives and friends to help their older loved ones to regain some of their losses by engaging them as often as possible.
In addition to not attending school in person, children experienced another important effect of the pandemic: cavities.
“We’ve seen a lot of ‘COVID cavities,’” said Cynthia Wong, pediatric dentist and program director for the Pediatric Dentistry Residency Program at URMC. “The caries rate is off the roof now.”
A combination of skipped dental cleanings, stress munching on sweets and constant access to food while at home has meant many children have new cavities. Now that the backlog at dental offices has cleared up, Wong wants parents to make sure they take their children in for a check-up.