Editor's Note: This column is co-authored by Dr. Simone Gold, founder of A Doctor A Day (ADAD), a grassroots physician organization.
Nine weeks ago, our world was turned upside down.
In an attempt to stave off a significant threat to public health, government leaders at all levels overreacted, by giving orders to shut down virtually all sectors of the economy. But in focusing all attention on, and devoting all resources to, the one threat – the possibility of a coronavirus calamity – they overlooked a second threat to public health, the one they were creating by their own actions: the threat created by shutting down virtually all non-coronavirus-related health care. By doing so, they introduced the Law of Unintended Consequences – the one law that cannot be repealed.
We believe it’s time for a second opinion.
The new, current, and potentially larger threat to public health, mind you, was not the result of a natural disaster, nor was it the result of a deliberate act of war by a hostile foreign power. It was, instead, the result of a series of decisions by our own leaders, acting in the face of a perceived threat to public health.
Their fear at the time was that the surge of COVID-19 patients would be so huge and so quick that our health care system would be overwhelmed – we would run out of hospital rooms to handle all the patients, and we would run out of ventilators to treat those who needed them. The “flatten the curve” strategy was never meant to reduce the number of infections that would take place, it was meant merely to spread them out, so that our capacity to handle cases would not be overwhelmed, and we would not run out of hospital rooms or ventilators.
As a consequence of the early decisions made by government leaders to prepare our hospitals and health care facilities for that expected surge of COVID-19 patients, virtually all non-coronavirus-related health care came to a screeching halt. Surgeons canceled scheduled elective surgeries, dentists canceled appointments, patients canceled cancer screenings, parents canceled their children’s scheduled vaccinations, and other forms of regular preventative health care were delayed indefinitely. Too, patients were scared to visit their doctors or go to the hospital, for fear of contracting the virus, so they stopped going.
The expected surge of COVID-19 patients never materialized. Our hospitals were not overwhelmed. No patient who needed a ventilator was forced to do without.
Meanwhile, while virtually all the media’s attention has been focused on the day-to-day updates of how many new COVID-19 cases are reported, and how many additional deaths can be attributed to COVID-19, this second, virtually unnoticed public health threat has continued to do damage. And it has continued to do damage on two fronts: new illnesses that are going undiagnosed (and, therefore, untreated) because visits to doctors are significantly down, and new or worsened maladies that are a direct result of the shutdown of economic activity (increased use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, calls to suicide hotlines, and domestic abuse, for example).
For instance, in America, on average, we detect 150,000 new cases of cancer every month. We’ve been shut down for more than two months at this point, and visits to doctors – and the cancer screenings that go with them – are down significantly. Consequently, it’s likely that literally hundreds of thousands of new cases of cancer have developed but not been detected. Our experience tells us that the earlier a case of cancer is detected, the greater are the odds of successful treatment, so delayed diagnosis does tremendous damage.
Visits to emergency rooms are down significantly. A recent poll commissioned by the American College of Emergency Physicians and Morning Consult revealed that “four in five respondents were concerned about contracting the coronavirus from another patient or visitor if they went to the emergency room.”
On the second front, by virtually every measure, our nation’s health has taken a hit. Calls to mental health and suicide hotlines are up significantly. More opioid abusers are dying of overdoses. Within weeks of the first lockdown orders, alcohol sales spiked – distilled spirits were up 75 percent compared to the same period last year, while wine sales increased by 66 percent, and beer sales by 42 percent.
We’ve handled the coronavirus threat. No hospitals were overwhelmed, and the curve has been flattened. Now it’s time to reopen America – not just for the economic benefit, but for the health care benefit.
Jenny Beth Martin is honorary chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action. Simone Gold, MD, JD, FABEM, is a board certified emergency physician and attorney who works as an emergency physician. She is the founder of www.adoctoraday.com a grassroots physician organization.