Seeking the pandemic's silver lining | WORLD
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Seeking the silver lining

COVID-19 has been a nightmare, but the pandemic has also resulted in a reduced flu season, expanded telemedicine, and the growth of RNA-based vaccines

A family uses an iPad during a medical consultation. Geber86/Getty Images

Seeking the silver lining

The pandemic has touched everyone in the last year: Whether they suffered from the virus itself or from the restrictions put in place to protect from it—or both—everyone’s life changed. Lockdowns and dramatic swings in consumer demand battered the economy, isolation made the lonely even lonelier, and mundane activities took on an air of adventure and danger.

Even some of the offsetting changes we’d hoped to see, like fewer deaths from highway accidents, didn’t happen: As empty roads during lockdowns tempted risk-takers to test their cars’ limits, fatalities behind the wheel actually rose during the pandemic.

Was there any bright side at all to the events of the past year? Medically speaking, yes.

Since masks, social distancing, and hand-washing hinder the spread of almost every respiratory virus, very few people caught the flu during the coronavirus pandemic. CDC’s flu tracker reflected the lightest flu year in recent history, with seven times fewer people visiting the hospital for flu than even during the “low-severity 2011-12 season.” This had economic consequences of its own, with Walgreens warning its investors of a drop in profits from cold and flu medicine sales.

The pandemic also sped up the acceptance of telemedicine, or remote medical consultations. For a few months, healthcare workers struggled through technological growing pains, especially as incompatible systems at different hospitals added to the frustration. Yet doctors had few other choices: How else could patients afraid to visit the hospital follow up with their doctors? How else could doctors stateside help colleagues overseas while world travel was shut down?

Once doctors and patients figured out how to make it work, telemedicine quickly gained popularity. More than 30 percent of outpatient visits during the pandemic occurred remotely. Telemedicine also served another important role in relieving emergency room overcrowding. By outfitting ambulances and firetrucks with tablet computers for remote consultation with ER doctors, the city of Houston safely diverted patients who didn’t need the ER to clinics and primary care providers. While the program predated COVID-19, increased familiarity with telemedicine will allow others to create similar programs.

Technology will never fully eliminate the need for face-to-face visits and physical exams, but the advances in telemedicine can help in certain situations long after the pandemic ends. That includes when patients have limited mobility, live in remote locations, or need help during inclement weather.

COVID-19 also set the stage for RNA-based vaccines’ big moment. Vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, based on new mRNA technology, show excellent protection against COVID-19, and it’s only the first target their designers have in mind. One team is researching a universal flu vaccine using mRNA. Drugmaker GSK has filed a patent for an RNA-based anti-parasitic vaccine designed to protect against diseases like malaria.

Speculation last year revolved around the idea of a “new normal” and what changes would mean for how we live. As vaccine success stories replace overcrowded hospitals in the headlines, I’m grateful that in place of endless masking and distancing, the “new normal” can include less crowded ERs, more convenient doctor visits, and the hope of vaccines for long-intractable diseases.

Charles Horton, M.D. Charles is WORLD's medical correspondent. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a physician. Charles resides near Pittsburgh with his wife and four children.


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