The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is poised to have a significant impact on the U.S. healthcare system. Last week, our CEO J. Bennet Waters hosted a conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Runge to get his expert view on the topic. Dr. Runge is a biodefense expert and former Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, who helped prepare the country’s response to the possible spread of the H5N1 virus in 2006. The conversation covered the spread of COVID-19, the probability of a second wave, business continuity, and more. Here are our key takeaways:
1. There are still many unknowns
In order to flatten the curve, states across the country implemented stringent safety and social distancing measures. However, many have started pulling back on some of those measures and setting out phased approaches to reopen cities. During the live chat, Dr. Runge noted that in order to accurately predict the possibility of a second wave, we need to slim down the number of unknowns. Among those unknown factors are:
- The characteristics of the virus: While studies are still ongoing, Dr. Runge refuted some popular claims that the COVID-19 virus is seasonal.
- How long it will take the virus to mutate to a less virulent organism: Viruses tend to mutate to become less toxic to their hosts in order to survive.
- How long the virus lives on different surfaces: This will be important for retail establishments in terms of knowing what and how frequently to disinfect surfaces once they open completely.
Additionally, as more parts of the country open up, the increased mobility due to the economy’s dependence on transportation of goods and people could lead to additional waves of COVID-19.
2. Physical distancing and barrier protection are essential
Currently, the only sure tools in our response tool box are physical distancing and barrier protection, according to Dr. Runge. Tests for a vaccine and effective course of treatment are underway — the FDA has issued Emergency Use Authorizations for multiple medications, but none has been confirmed as a guaranteed treatment. A universal vaccine is also still some ways away. Until then, people have to get on board with wearing masks in public and following hygiene guidelines.
As pharmacies consider ways to reopen fully to the public, Dr. Runge suggested widespread education of public health guidelines in order to prevent businesses from being vulnerable to those who don’t obey the rules. In addition, he emphasized the importance of wearing masks, calling it a public health responsibility (he also dispelled the common misconception that all masks protect the wearer). When doors are open to customers, pharmacy staff should consider making masks a requirement for anyone entering the establishment. As Dr. Runge put it: “If everyone wears a mask, then distance becomes less important. If no one’s wearing a mask, the only tool in your toolbox is distance.”
3. Integrated healthcare is important moving forward
Last month, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health issued new guidance authorizing licensed pharmacists to administer COVID-19 tests. This type of integrated approach to COVID-19 testing (and healthcare in general) will be important as the country looks to reach the next phase of recovery. Dr. Runge noted that retail pharmacies not already looking to become healthcare hubs will have to figure out how to move in this direction to facilitate efficiency in the healthcare system.
In order to accelerate the opportunities to expand the pharmacist’s role in healthcare, Dr. Runge identified two areas that need to be addressed immediately: training and politics. Political barriers and policy issues should be tackled to allow healthcare providers outside of physicians with appropriate training, skill, and certifications help improve the financial and time efficiency of healthcare. Simultaneously, increased training will also help providers step in when needed.
Thanks to Dr. Runge for taking the time to share his expertise.