COVID 2 year collage

News, Coronavirus Updates | 2 months ago

COVID-19: Two Years of Learning, Adapting and Innovating

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, few could have imagined what the next two years would entail. Looking back, it’s amazing to reflect on how much has been accomplished by the local and national scientific and healthcare communities, including Atrium Health. As hard as this pandemic has been, we’ve all learned just how strong we can be.

In the two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, it has taken a significant toll on patients and health care workers alike. But it has also taught us how resilient and innovative we can be when faced with the unthinkable—a deadly virus capable of shutting down the world.

“We moved faster than ever before to develop, evaluate and distribute treatments and vaccines,” says Katie Passaretti, MD, vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health.

Standing Up to a New Virus

In the initial days of the pandemic, everyone on the health care front line had to quickly adjust as patient volumes began to rise. Atrium Health clinicians and nurses were figuring out how best to treat patients for a never-before-seen virus, while simultaneously applying new infection prevention protocols and implementing novel technology and communication strategies – such as the Family Connection Program, which helped COVID-19 patients in the ICU connect virtually with family members.

“Things that previously would have taken a few weeks or months to adopt, our nursing staff and clinicians changed within hours,” reflects Becky Fox, MSN, RN-BC, vice president and chief nursing informatics officer at Atrium Health.

Atrium Health quickly established fixed testing sites across its service areas, as well as a multi-cultural communications taskforce to provide culturally responsive communications and to address myths and misconceptions that were forming and spreading in minority communities, explains Brandi Newman, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, vice president of community and social impact administration at Atrium Health.

“We built a data infrastructure that showed us that there were gaps in testing for communities of color and that the majority of African Americans were seeking testing in our emergency departments, once they were severely ill,” Newman says.

So, Atrium Health quickly launched an aggressive and innovative testing model that identified COVID-19 hotspots and deployed mobile medical units into these underserved neighborhoods, breaking down barriers for screening and testing and ensuring equitable access. We were able to close the testing disparity gap in the African American community within two weeks of launching the mobile units and in the Hispanic community within one month.

Vaccinating and Protecting Our Communities

“Because of this approach to equitable access and care in the early days of the pandemic, Charlotte didn’t experience some of the severe COVID-19 disparities within minority populations, compared to other major cities,” Newman adds.

Since vaccines became available to the public in early 2021, the mobile medical units have administered nearly 32,000 of them in underserved communities, with 76% of those going to people of color.

This has all been a part of Atrium Health’s work with state and local governments, along with non-healthcare partners, to form public-private partnerships to face down the challenges of COVID-19, says  David Callaway, MD, chief of crisis operations at Atrium Health.

Among other things, these partnerships led to multiple mass vaccination events, which started in January 2021, not long after Atrium Health became the first health care system in the state to begin administering vaccines to the public. At our first weekend vaccination event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we inoculated 16,000 people against COVID-19. The following weekend, another 19,000 people received their first COVID-19 vaccine at Bank of America Stadium. Additional events occurred at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and local breweries, as well as at area churches as part of our Community Immunity for All program, focused on underserved communities.  

In addition, we distributed 4.2 million free face masks throughout the community as part of our Million Mask Initiative, with a special emphasis on getting them into the hands of essential workers and the underserved.

Our work dispensing COVID-19 booster shots to immunocompromised patients began in August 2021. The boosters are now approved and available at Atrium Health for people aged 12 years and older.

Understanding the Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

With all of the twists and turns COVID-19 has thrown our way, it’s no coincidence that Atrium Health providers have also dealt with a surge in people seeking mental health services. According to psychiatrist James Rachal, MD, senior academic chairman of the department of psychiatry at Atrium Health, about 10% of the population reported depression or anxiety symptoms prior to the pandemic. That dramatically increased to about 30% in 2020. He says isolation was one of the major drivers of this increase.  

Alcohol and tobacco use also increased during the pandemic and, sadly, it exacerbated the opioid epidemic, says Dr. Rachal.

“There were approximately 50,000 deaths from opiate overdose in 2019, already doubling the number in 2010. Since then, they’ve gone up another 50%,” he says.

Between April 2020 and April 2021, the CDC reported 75,673 overdose deaths from opioids.

Despite the alarming statistics, there are still some silver linings worth recognizing as it relates to behavioral health and the pandemic. Rachal notes that suicides have decreased, as has the stigma around mental health, allowing more people to seek treatment without judgment.

Caring for Our Children

Although children have generally not been affected by COVID-19 as severely as adults, Amina Ahmed, MD, chief medical director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and professor of infectious diseases at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital, says they’ve learned important lessons about its impact in children over the last two years:

  • Children account for 25-30% of all COVID-19 infections and can easily transmit the virus to others.
  • Many children have asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic cases, making them silent spreaders of COVID-19.
  • During the omicron surge, children birth to 4-years-old, who can’t yet be vaccinated, experienced increasing rates of cases and a 25-30% positivity rate.
  • Kids ages 5 through 11 are the most likely to develop multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), one of the most severe consequences of COVID-19 in which various organs become inflamed, but which can be prevented through vaccines.

The best way to keep kids safe, especially in the 0-4 age range, is for everyone around them to be vaccinated, including all eligible household members and any school or daycare staff who interact with them, advises Ahmed. When kids are diagnosed with COVID-19, they can now be treated with the anti-viral Remdesivir, as its safety was confirmed in trials that Atrium Health participated in as the trial’s highest enroller.

Moving to the Next Phase

Ahmed, Callaway and Passaretti all agree that we haven’t reached the endemic stage of COVID-19 just yet, but we’re getting closer. They stress that getting vaccinated and boosted is the best thing you can do to help our communities reach the point where COVID-19 becomes more stable and predictable. 

To schedule your appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine or booster, visit online here.