PUMPING IRONY: Salutary Side Effects?

Non-COVID hospital admissions have dropped precipitously since the pandemic struck, leading some to suggest our precautions have somehow made us healthier. I have my doubts.

An empty hospital corridor

The death toll of the current pandemic is inching inexorably toward the quarter-million mark in the United States while every credible public-health expert warns us that the autumn surge they’ve been predicting for months is now upon us. So, like a lot of our geezer compatriots, My Lovely Wife and I have battened down the hatches. There’s no more golf, our daughter’s wedding is now behind us, and our social calendar — if you can call it that — should be clean well into the new year.

COVID-19 has changed our lives in myriad ways, but a recent study suggests that — at least for those of us who have survived it so far — it may actually be making us healthier.

Writing in the New York Times, Pauline Chen, MD, describes how she and her colleagues at the Boston-area hospital where they practice have yet to see the expected rush of non-COVID patients once the initial surge of the disease dissipated. “More than seven months into the pandemic, there are still no lines of patients in the halls,” she writes. “While my colleagues and I are busier than we were in March, there has been no pent-up overflow of people with crushing chest pain, debilitating shortness of breath or fevers and wet, rattling coughs.”

Could it be that all the practices we’ve adopted to avoid the virus have contributed to moderately better health — at least as measured by hospital visits? A recent Dartmouth University survey of more than 200 hospitals in 36 states revealed that non-COVID hospital admissions between February and July had dropped by half when compared with the same period a year ago. And even when hospitals began offering elective surgeries and in-person office visits months later, the number of admissions was still down by about 20 percent.

“We found it staggering that such a high number of patients who might have been hospitalized for serious issues just kind of disappeared,” lead study author John Birkmeyer, MD, told Chen. “You have to wonder, ‘Where did they all go.’”

The last place I’d want to frequent these days is a hospital corridor, so I assumed those who would have otherwise landed in the ER for relatively minor afflictions were willing to manage their symptoms at home. But Birkmeyer and his team discovered that the admissions deficit was primarily due to a lack of patients suffering from strokes, heart attacks, emphysema, sepsis, and other life-threatening conditions that typically require hospitalization.

And that led them to theorize that some of the pandemic’s effects may actually be salutary. The lockdowns during the spring may have reduced traffic and, by extension, improved air quality — a major cause of diseases ranging from asthma and emphysema to strokes and heart attacks. And, of course, the widespread use of masks, increased hand washing, and social distancing would at least partly explain fewer non-COVID bugs swirling in our vicinity.

“People keep saying, ‘Hey, I don’t remember the last time I had a cold,’” notes Jonathan Skinner, PhD, a senior author of the study. “It’s because no one is hugging or shaking hands, and everyone is washing their hands.”

The cold and flu seasons are only just upon us, so I’m not sure Skinner’s anecdotal evidence carries much weight. And I also wonder whether Birkmeyer’s crew considered all the elderly folks who were no longer shuttling into and out of hospitals because they’d been killed by the coronavirus. I can’t really quibble with the numbers the study revealed; multiple reports have noted that hospitals across the country are struggling financially. But to conclude that the virus is creating a brave new world of healthy Americans seems to be a bit of stretch.

I can’t say that all the precautions MLW and I have built into our lives have boosted our well-being in any substantive way. We’re not seeing much of our friends and family, we’re not regularly pedaling our bikes to our favorite neighborhood destinations, we’re not vacationing. We have managed to avoid the doctor’s office and the ER, but the former is simply due to our distrust of the Western medical model and the latter probably has more to do with dumb luck than anything else. Meanwhile, three of our neighbors have spent time in the hospital with non-COVID ailments since the plague struck and my brother is about to enter the medical maelstrom that is cancer treatment. For them, it has nothing to do with masking up and social distancing.

So, as much as I’d like to think Birkmeyer’s findings are less likely to indicate a healthier population than a fresh skepticism of the medical-pharmaceutical complex, I doubt either conclusion applies. I suspect that when the plague finally lifts, folks looking to cure their various ailments will once again return to their doctors, whose job it is to send them to the pharmacy or the hospital for some test or procedure. For the vast majority of Americans, this is how you stay alive. And for all COVID-19’s lethal force, that belief system is pretty much invulnerable.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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