Lehigh Valley infectious disease experts get it: People are tired of COVID-19.
They’re tired of not going places and doing things like they did before, and as the holidays approach, not being able to see extended family without fear of the coronavirus disease spreading.
“There’s a tendency to drop your guard,” said Dr. Jeffery Jahre, senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases at St. Luke’s University Health Network.
That means consistently and properly wearing a face mask in public, social distancing when you’re around people outside your household, and good hygiene like thorough hand-washing and cleaning frequently touched surfaces. With the return of influenza — another respiratory illness — people can get vaccinated.
“I think if we can keep up with those measures which are fairly simple … that we really can make a big impact on respiratory viral illnesses in the community,” said Dr. Alex Benjamin, chief infectious diseases officer for Lehigh Valley Health Network.
Jahre likens living with the pandemic to getting into a car: Every time we drive somewhere, we can take precautions such as wearing a seatbelt and staying put during terrible weather, but we still could be killed in a crash. We know mitigation measures cut down on risk, but there is no zero risk.
“The same is true with COVID-19,” he said.
Approaching eight months into the coronavirus pandemic in Pennsylvania, more than 190,000 people have been infected, 8,625 residents have died and cases are on the rise as colder weather settles in.
With fall and winter, of course, come more activities indoors, where the virus can more easily spread through exhaled droplets and tiny aerosols.
“We don’t want to drop our guard at this point in time,” Jahre said. “We know that being outside helps the dissolution effect, and things are much less risky when you do them outdoors … but indoors that tends not to be the case.”
COVID-19 in the Lehigh Valley today is not the dire situation we faced at the outset of the pandemic in spring, the experts say.
But warning signs are flashing, like rises in positive tests and hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients. By the time we start to do that, the ball has begun rolling down the hill, said the Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Benjamin.
“What we’re seeing is an increase from the absolute lows of several weeks ago, but they’re nowhere near — and I want to be very clear about that — what they were at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis back in early April,” Jahre said.
Here is a look at increases in coronavirus indicators from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard. You can click here to view the chart if it’s not displaying.
Amid the rise, the infectious disease experts see cause for optimism in treating those who face serious complications from the coronavirus.
“It’s concerning, but I think we’ve learned a lot from the first surge of COVID in April and May,” Benjamin said. “Once the numbers started to trend downward, the network really started to prepare itself for another surge.”
Medical experts from the start of the pandemic have refined treatments, and while there’s no vaccine on the immediate horizon for the majority of the public, here’s what’s advised for various patients:
- Not hospitalized or hospitalized but not needing extra oxygen: No specific drugs recommended, and a warning against using steroids.
- Hospitalized and needing extra oxygen but not a breathing machine: The antiviral drug remdesivir, given through an IV, and in some cases also a steroid.
- Hospitalized and on a breathing machine: Remdesivir and a steroid.
Lehigh Valley Health Network has been stocking up on medications and personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensuring an adequate stable of ventilators.
“We’ve been stockpiling what we can,” Benjamin said. “Even though the numbers are going up, we’re better prepared.”
Jahre points to the St. Luke’s network’s embrace of technology: Partnering with Lehigh University on a patent-pending machine specially made to use ultraviolet light to sterilize N95 masks for repeated use; 3D-printing reusable N95 masks with filter inserts that can be replaced over and over again; cutting down on PPE use by remote teleconferencing in place of getting together in person and by reducing visits to patient rooms through symptom-tracking with the Masimo SafetyNet wireless surveillance system.
“What I want the public to understand is we’re very, very proud of the culture that we have over here and the results of that,” Jahre said. “Despite all these things, we’re proud of what we’ve done, but we still have to be humble about this. There’s a tremendous amount that we still have to learn about this and improve on what we’re doing and we know that.”
As health networks, both Lehigh Valley and St. Luke’s have the ability to transfer patients, personnel and equipment where they’re needed across their hospitals throughout the region.
“So there is no crisis in terms of hospital beds, there is no crisis in terms of the ability to deliver care and we are in a much, much, much better condition now taking care of our patients than we were back in April,” Jahe said.
In addition to keeping up with personal mitigation measures, Benjamin advises the public to stay current with the COVID-19 situation as infections rise.
“The one thing that sort of prevents fatigue is knowing how many cases there are in your community, in your county,” he said. “And we know the numbers are going up. To protect yourself, to protect your family, to protect your coworkers, we have to maintain that vigilance.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to lehighvalleylive.com.
Kurt Bresswein may be reached at [email protected].