In December 2019, the KHC was looking for a new office space, and one of the options we discussed as a team was going to a work-from-home arrangement. Under no uncertain terms, worried about my ability to be productive and avoid going completely insane from isolation like a scene from The Shining, I was completely against the idea of working remotely.
Just three months later, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves in the exact situation I had so passionately advocated against. You know what? It wasn’t so bad. And now, two years later to the day that we were last in the office together on a regular basis, I have a hard time imagining going back to the pre-March 2020 status quo.
On this two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the last couple of years and how we can use the lessons from this experience moving forward.
REMEMBER WIPING DOWN GROCERIES?
This week, while we planned for our 8th KHC Annual Conference next month, a colleague and I were digging through our inboxes for communication we’d put together for our March 2020 KHC Annual Conference. Looking back, emails and documents from that time now seem like mini time capsules, and we laughed as we looked through messages to attendees referencing “monitoring the situation with COVID-19,” placing hand sanitizer at each table, and playfully encouraging attendees to “bump elbows” in lieu of handshakes.
The 2020 conference didn’t happen. At least not in person. Two days before the event, we made the call to go fully virtual, selected and learned a new online event platform, and donated the food that had been purchased to charity. The KHC team ran the event together from the office and after the event went home, never expecting that we wouldn’t be back in the office together for months. Like many others, the following weeks were spent puzzling, wiping down groceries, and sewing masks from T-shirt scraps and hair elastics.
It’s tough to remember a time when COVID-19 didn’t play a significant, antagonistic role in our lives. Even watching older movies, filmed well before 2020, I find myself having a knee-jerk “what are they doing getting on a train without a mask??” reaction. Before I leave the house, I make sure that I grab a mask off the hook by the front door.
I hope that this moment one day seems like a relic of the past as well. But as much as I would like to forget, I don’t want us to waste the opportunity to learn from that time and to do better in the future.
MORE THAN PUZZLES AND BAKING BREAD
The pandemic brought many issues, some of which had been bubbling below the surface, into the spotlight in the spring and summer of 2020.
It was clear from the beginning that there were disparities between racial groups when it came to who contracted the virus and who had severe complications from the disease. In June 2020, despite making up just 8% of the total Kentucky population, individuals who are Black accounted for 15% of COVID-19 cases and approximately 17% of the deaths caused by it. Two years on, and cumulative data over time shows persisting disparities in cases for Hispanic people and deaths for Black people.
At the same time, the tragic and senseless killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous others punctuated the prominence of structural racism in the United States. These crises demonstrated the interconnectedness of our health and economic well-being and spotlighted the urgent need for high quality, affordable, and equitable healthcare.
Many workers welcomed the chance to work from home, joining meetings virtually while wearing their pajama bottoms. But that didn’t extend to essential workers without the ability to work from home, and women in particular bore much of the burden of balancing childcare with their jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 863,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 (about the time children resumed school in the fall), compared to 168,000 men.
SEIZING OUR OPPORTUNITY
But for all the challenges the last two years have brought, only a few of which are highlighted above, there are shakeups and opportunities that have also resulted that we would be remiss to let slip away . We are at the closest thing to a reset that our healthcare system has seen in recent history, and it’s time we capitalize on that momentum.
This isn’t a KHC Annual Conference post, but because the anniversary of the official start of the pandemic fell on the same day as the 2020 conference it is often linked together in my mind. It’s therefore no coincidence that our conference this year is looking ahead to the future of healthcare and how we can take advantage of the necessary changes that the pandemic has either created, highlighted, or sped up.
Mental health already was a growing area of focus for healthcare stakeholders, and the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of depression and anxiety worldwide, and the work-from-home arrangements that many workers enjoyed also caused widespread burnout, including among essential healthcare workers. I’ve been on many calls lately with employers who have invested more in the mental health of their employees and improved access to necessary care.
Infrastructure for telehealth and digital solutions also was a priority before the pandemic that rapidly gained ground after the start of the pandemic. Organizations have engaged in necessary and real conversations about their role in systemic racism in healthcare, and the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) has added race and ethnicity stratification for five HEDIS measures starting in 2022, allowing us to see where disparities exist so we can address care gaps.
I look forward to reflecting on this post a year from now and hope that we continue to retain the lessons that we’ve learned over the last two years. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Or a good pandemic.