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George Mason University

COVID 19: Health Policy Research and Ethics Health: Where Are We Now?

June 12, 2020   /   by Nicole Cummings

Panelists Discuss the Status of COVID-19 and Epidemic Trends with an Emphasis on Public Policy and Health Administration 

Amidst the reopening of Northern Virginia and many states across the country, a panel of experts came together to discuss the status of COVID-19 infection trends, what to expect going forward in terms of social and behavioral norms, as well as the prevalent problems within hospitals and health care in the lecture COVID 19: Health Policy Research and Ethics Health: Where Are We Now?  The session was the first event in the new Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics (CHPRE) Health Policy Lecture Series.

Moderator Dr. Alison Cuellar, professor of health administration and policy and director of CHPRE, was joined by the panel featuring Dr. Amira Roess, professor of epidemiology and global health; Dr. Edward Maibach, professor and director of Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication; and Ashley Thompson, senior vice president for public policy at the American Hospital Association. 

Panelists explored questions such as, “Where are we now, and what are we paying attention to in order to flatten the curve?” Roess, whose specializes in infectious diseases such as MERS-CoV, began by emphasizing the need to continue monitoring hospitalizations and to take Phase 1 guidelines seriously. “We are still encouraging people to stay at home if they can, and to continue wearing masks and social distancing during Phase 1,” emphasized Roess.  

In addition, contact tracing is a very important aspect of outbreak response that goes hand in hand with accurate testing and information. The process starts with a report on an individual who has tested positive, then a contact tracer will interview the individual to find out where they have been and who they have been in contact with, in order to prevent further spreading. 

In Virginia, the current goal is to have approximately 1,300 contact tracers. Right now, there are only around 350 trained contact tracers. Building a reliable network of contract tracers will be a very important metric in creating reliable infrastructure going forward. 

Only days before this Webinar, protests broke out all over the country in response to police brutality. Health experts are particularly worried about a spike in outbreaks, and leaders are encouraging those who participated in protests to get tested. “We are concerned about the effect of these protests [on COVID-19 infection rates] and will keep an eye on the number of reported cases over the next few weeks,” Roess affirmed. 

At this point, people are wondering what life will be like going forward, and what to expect in social atmospheres with a potential change in cultural norms. Maibach and his colleagues at Yale University conducted a survey on American attitudes and behaviors surrounding the pandemic. Back in March, they found that Americans were concerned for themselves and others. After the CDC recommended wearing masks, 12% of Americans started wearing masks in public. Seeing an immediate and significant change in behavior revealed people are understanding the health and safety measures they need to take and are taking the advice of health experts and officials.  

Maibach’s study captured the responses of 4,000 participant responses through telephone surveys nationally represented through the web. “The relationship between the effect of social norms on people’s protective behaviors is very strong,” Maibach added. 

After considering current epidemic trends and American attitudes towards COVID-19, the panel heard from Thompson on the financial problems hospitals face.   

“Hospitals are facing extensive financial challenges, especially in New York where they are losing billions of dollars,” informed Thompson. 

Canceling elective surgeries has caused hospitals to lose billions of dollars since they make most of their money from these non-essential surgeries. Without those revenue streams and the combination of COVID-19 related treatment costs, hospitals are struggling, especially those in rural communities that were already financially stressed. As a result, hospitals and public health officials are striving to communicate more effectively while working towards innovative ways to share equipment and resources.

Although the government emergency fund has infused health care providers with $150 billion, which has been helpful, the disproportionate dispersal of funds has not been effective, and the stimulus has made little impact in covering the overall losses hospitals have experienced.  

“In response to these losses, furloughs and layoffs have been one of the hardest things our hospital leaders have had to deal with. It’s heart wrenching that these caregivers have stepped up to take care of others by putting themselves at risk, and we’ve had to turn around, and in some cases lay them off, because otherwise the hospital will go under. Usually hospitals are protected during a recession, but have not been in this pandemic,” stated Thompson.

Thompson and Roess also discussed the growing use of telehealth, and the part it has played during the pandemic. 

“Telehealth likely would not have advanced for years to come if COVID-19 had not happened. In the past, there was a push against telehealth with many excuses for why it wouldn’t work. Now that it is in action, we are seeing some cases of improved provider patient relationships. There are benefits to health care at home that we haven’t fully explored, and there is so much we can do if we just get out of our own ways and stop making excuses,” concluded Roess.  

Ultimately, the panelists concluded that there is a lot to learn from this experience to improve health care and public health infrastructure and that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come.

Learn more about the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics Health Policy Lecture Series, view recordings of previous webinars, and register for future webinars.

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