Maintaining health for you and your loved ones is always important, but making decisions about getting care during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic can be confusing and even scary.
The good news: Physical distancing appears to be working to help limit the spread of the virus and prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. These efforts, the transition to virtual care when COVID-19 first hit the United States, and stay-at-home orders in most states enabled healthcare providers to prepare to safely see patients who require in-person visits.
So what can you do to make sure you maintain your health while protecting yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19? Follow these three tips.
1. Don’t delay care.
If you have an upcoming primary or specialty care appointment, keep it. Appointments that do not require a physical exam or face-to-face contact can shift to a virtual care appointment with your provider. Virtual care allows you to stay at home and communicate with your healthcare providers through phone, tablet or computer.
Sometimes, however, you need to be seen in person for your care or treatment. This is true if you have an immediate concern such as a urinary tract infection or broken ankle, or if you have a chronic condition such as hypertension, diabetes or heart disease.
“I cannot check your blood pressure or heart rate if you’re not in the office,” says UNC family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. “And for my patients who have uncontrolled diabetes, I need to be able to test their A1C, which is a blood test” that measures average blood glucose levels.
“If you’re having something such as chest pain, that’s serious—COVID or no COVID—and you should either call your doctor or just go to the emergency room,” Dr. Ruff says. “The ERs are separating COVID patients from non-COVID patients.”
2. Ask what safety precautions your provider is taking to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Healthcare systems and doctors’ offices are putting safety measures in place to keep you safe if you need an in-person office visit. These include:
- Reducing the number of in-person visits to ensure fewer patients come to their facilities
- Scheduling additional time between appointments to minimize contact between patients
- Enhancing cleaning between patients, including more frequent deep cleaning of facilities
- Changing the setup of waiting rooms to allow for physical distancing
- When possible, eliminating time in the waiting room by allowing patients to remain in their cars until staff are ready to take them to an office or exam room
- Implementing a patient mask policy
- Ensuring all patients wash their hands thoroughly as soon as they enter facilities
- Conducting a wellness screening before each patient’s office visit and possibly a temperature check before the patient enters the facility
- Ensuring COVID-19 patients receive care from dedicated teams in locations that are separate from all other patients
- Providing all healthcare staff with adequate personal protective equipment
- Limiting visitors
Before your appointment, call your provider’s office to ask what safety measures are in place.
3. Protect yourself.
Because many people with COVID-19 never experience symptoms, and those who will eventually develop symptoms can be contagious before they feel sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public. So even if your physician’s office says it will provide you with a mask, bring your own so you have it before you enter the facility.
“Wear a cloth mask or bandana, because we are learning that droplets in the air can transmit coronavirus more than we thought before,” Dr. Ruff says. “The mask you wear is not intended to protect you. It is to protect others in case you have COVID-19 but aren’t showing symptoms.”
As soon as you leave your appointment, use hand sanitizer, and don’t touch the outside of your mask; assume it could have virus particles on it. Take off the mask, touching only the ties or elastic bands that go around your ears.
“Make sure not to touch your face,” Dr. Ruff says, and then wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
If you are concerned you may have been exposed to the coronavirus, or if you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your primary care provider. Do not go to your doctor’s office or an urgent care clinic without first determining if further medical screening is necessary. If you are having difficulty breathing, call 911 or seek immediate treatment.