The COVID-19 Tsunami: The Tide Goes Out Before It Comes In

Experts warn of severe primary care disruptions without prompt federal intervention

Doctor and Patient at West County Community Clinic.
Photo: Jessica Brandi Lifland

Most people in the US have withdrawn from their daily routines unless their jobs are essential. Quiet streets, shuttered stores, silent schools. More than 400,000 live with the knowledge that they have the disease, but the slowness of our testing means that multiples of that number are likely to be infected. In pockets around the country, hospitals feel the earliest surges from those most vulnerable to COVID-19, but countrywide, the tsunami is still out at sea.

The devastating effects of a tsunami are usually preceded by an abnormally fast and long low tide, as water is actually pulled away from shore toward the epicenter of the underwater earthquake. Most of the US currently sits in that temporary equipoise. Most Americans who receive any health care in a given year do so in a primary care setting, where they generally have the relationships that they count on most when they are sick — or scared that they might be. In 2016, primary care provided 54.5% of all patient care visits (PDF), and despite representing only 30% of the physician workforce, primary care physicians manage the majority of the care of people with the same high-risk conditions that put them at risk for the coronavirus. Research published in 2016 reminded us that the “ecology” of care-seeking and care-receiving behavior in the US has not changed in 60 years.

In a given month, 113 people in 1,000 visited primary care clinicians, while only 8 were hospitalized and less than one was cared for in any of the university hospitals that dominate the US health care landscape and conversation. Primary care clinicians are the predominant providers of health care in small towns and rural areas, where they often also staff many of the rural and critical access hospitals that those communities depend on. And although the relationship between the US population and its primary care workforce should therefore serve as protective breakers in the face of an unprecedented pandemic tsunami, the outgoing tide may actually be undermining the defensive wall before the surge arrives.

Continue reading this article on the Health Affairs Blog.

Jessica Brandi Lifland

Jessica Brandi Lifland is a freelance photographer, instructor of journalism at City College of San Francisco, and mother. Her work with publications and nonprofits such as Operation Smile, Tostan, and the California Health Care Foundation has taken her all over the world, including West Africa, the Middle East, Kosovo, Burma, Haiti, and South America. Read More

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