With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a once-in-a-100-year event. Dr. Steven A. Schulz, who is serving children on the front line in upstate New York, and I outline some of the challenges primary care pediatricians have been facing and solutions that have succeeded.
Reduction in direct patient care and its consequences
Because of the unknowns of COVID-19, many parents have not wanted to bring their children to a medical office because of fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, pediatricians have restricted in-person visits to prevent spread of SARS-CoV-2 and to help flatten the curve of infection. Use of pediatric medical professional services, compared with last year, dropped by 52% in March 2020 and by 58% in April, according to FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization that manages a database of 31 million claims. This is resulting in decreased immunization rates, which increases concern for secondary spikes of other preventable illnesses; for example, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that, from mid-March to mid-April 2020, physicians in the Vaccines for Children program ordered 2.5 million fewer doses of vaccines and 250,000 fewer doses of measles-containing vaccines, compared with the same period in 2019. Fewer children are being seen for well visits, which means opportunities are lost for adequate monitoring of growth, development, physical wellness, and social determinants of health.
This is occurring at a time when families have been experiencing increased stress in terms of finances, social isolation, finding adequate child care, and serving as parent, teacher, and breadwinner. An increase in injuries is occurring because of inadequate parental supervision because many parents have been distracted while working from home. An increase in cases of severe abuse is occurring because schools, child care providers, physicians, and other mandated reporters in the community have decreased interaction with children. Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs saw a 118% increase in the number of trauma cases in its ED between January and April 2020. Some of these were accidental injuries caused by falls or bicycle accidents, but there was a 200% increase in nonaccidental trauma, which was associated with a steep fall in calls to the state’s child abuse hotline. Academic gains are being lost, and there has been worry for a prolonged “summer slide” risk, especially for children living in poverty and children with developmental disabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic also is affecting physicians and staff. As frontline personnel, we are at risk to contract the virus, and news media reminds us of severe illness and deaths among health care workers. The pandemic is affecting financial viability; estimated revenue of pediatric offices fell by 45% in March 2020 and 48% in April, compared with the previous year, according to FAIR Health. Nurses and staff have been furloughed. Practices have had to apply for grants and Paycheck Protection Program funds while extending credit lines.