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Doctors, public health officials look to COVID lessons for the next major health crisis

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Max Schulte, WXXI News

COVID hasn’t entirely gone away. But as the public grows weary of COVID this and COVID that, public health officials and physicians hold on to many lessons they believe will serve them well when the next major health emergency arises.

While a century separated the Spanish Influenza pandemic and COVID-19, other major public health crises rose up in between. It’s been roughly 20 years since SARS cases were identified in Toronto. It’s been four decades since scientists and public health officials were learning of the spread of Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which in turn was leading to AIDS cases.

But for most public health officials and scientists, COVID was perhaps their first hands-on experience responding to a crisis of that scale, as well as to the misinformation many were spreading during the pandemic.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein notes when it was time to measure the impact of COVID in this region, they needed to build much of their response effort from square one.

“We didn't have any contact tracers, except for our sexually transmitted disease program. So we created a huge contact tracing disease investigator workforce,” Burstein said. “We also really needed to be able to respond to the public, in terms of their questions, be able to provide thousands and thousands and thousands of doses of vaccine, to be able to provide testing COVID-19 testing to the community. We had to build fresh and figure out how to create these resources.”

They also had to adjust how to continue their efforts against other public health problems which predated COVID but did not let up during the pandemic, including opioid overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases, cancers, and other serious matters.

COVID posed challenges for community physicians as well. Dr. Kenyani Davis, chief medical officer of the Community Health Center of Buffalo, says COVID further highlighted already existing socioeconomic disparities in the public.

It also exposed a concerning trend in the healthcare workforce. Davis points out that in more recent times, medical students have favored pursuing careers as specialists, as opposed to primary care physicians.

“People kept knocking on the door saying hey, nobody's going into primary care anymore, you guys really need to look into this. Most of the residents are going into specialties. You're going to have this, this bubble. It is going to burst at some point. Well, it burst, and it happened to burst during a pandemic,” Davis said. “Your primary care doctors are stretched, then you don't have any in the pipeline. Reimbursement rates are pretty low, so you're not really attracting people to come in. And then my colleagues on the inpatient side, they have had two years of just nonstop bombardment.”

According to Davis, it takes about ten years to develop a doctor. It will be critical to see in the next five years, she suggests, what sort of health care system exists.

But Davis and Burstein both share an opinion about what they found was a positive takeaway from the pandemic. They both point to the speed by which a vaccine was developed and distributed. Burstein told WBFO the building blocks for a coronavirus vaccine were already in place, but the ability to develop a COVID vaccine, and gain the support of the Food and Drug Administration to get it out to the public in quick time, showed the ability of the medical and scientific communities to work quickly.

“I think it gives us our lessons learned about how to respect science, and people who develop vaccines and realize that vaccines are still a very core primary prevention strategy, not only for pandemics, but for other communicable diseases,” Burstein said. “And hopefully, people will appreciate more the importance of vaccines.”

Getting some in the public to respond was not an easy task. Many resisted the requirements to wear masks in most public settings, and others resisted receiving the vaccine. When asked if COVID has led people to rethink their health habits, Davis said there’s one area where it noticeably has.

“One thing that it has done, is it has had people stop and re-examine their mental health,” Davis replied. “That is what it has done. I think more so than somebody saying, ‘hey, I'm going to start to exercise more,’ I have a lot more conversations about mental health than I normally did.”

Burstein, meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of maintaining support for local public health agencies. She points out that they are members of the communities they serve.

“I think we learned that it's very important to continue to provide local health departments with the resources, even during quiet times - non pandemic times, non public health emergency times - to be able to scale up very quickly and continue to be prepared,” Burstein said.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.