COVID-19: Get the facts

Novant Health Institute’s chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer updates us on the pandemic

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In the fight against COVID-19, it is important to have reliable information from doctors and researchers on the frontlines. When we have the facts, it is easier to make the right choices to protect the health and well-being of ourselves and each other.

One of those experts is David H. Priest, MD, MPH, FIDSA, the senior vice president and chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer for Novant Health and a crucial voice of reason on infectious diseases during this challenging time in healthcare.

“It’s a pretty simple thing when you think about it,” he said. “This is a virus that spreads among humans, and it spreads between humans when they’re close together and breathing on each other. So, if we’re not breathing on each other, and we’re not close together, the virus won’t spread.”

Dr. Priest recently joined Ann Caulkins, president of Novant Health Foundation and senior vice president of Novant Health, in the first webinar of a new series called Connecting with Remarkable Care, which features conversations with Novant Health experts on various topics and issues. The discussion with Dr. Priest centered on COVID-19 and how we begin a return to normal even as the pandemic remains a very real threat.

In the webinar, Dr. Priest noted that Novant Health has been very aggressive with testing. As of early August, the system has tested more than 150,000 patients and, in the process, noticed some important shifts.

“Early on, we typically encountered older patients who often lived in long-term care facilities or other congregant living situations. For these older patients, the mortality rates were higher,” Dr. Priest said. “Now, the average age is lower. These younger patients are less likely to need the ICU or ventilators, so we’re using relatively few ventilators now. The lengths of stay are getting shorter, so our hospitals are experiencing more turnover and the mortality is lower. In April, our mortality rate was about 14% and in July, it is down to about 6%.”

The improvement in outcomes has been no accident. Over the past several months, Novant Health physicians, nurses and clinical teams have learned more about how to care for patients with COVID-19 and how to keep them off ventilators with new therapies and the use of steroids. Behind the scenes, researchers have launched clinical trials at a rapid pace.

“We’ve had the remarkable ability to get clinical trials up and running at Novant Health rather quickly,” Dr. Priest said. “In fact, we got one trial going in four days, which is almost unheard of in the industry. We’ve now opened seven clinical trials at Novant Health since the COVID-19 pandemic started. So, just know that the community’s support of our team members has a downstream effect on our ability to further our work, including clinical trials.”

The community can also help contain the spread of the virus in everyday life by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, Dr. Priest said. 

“Mask, mask, mask,” he said. “The medical research shows it works. Have them in your pockets. Have them in your car. Encourage other people to do it. It’s not a political statement. It’s about protecting people around us.”

As developments occur, it is also important to avoid false information.

“I hear about social media’s negative impact, and I can tell you it’s really discouraging for healthcare workers to see arguments unfold — and usually between people who have no idea what they’re talking about,” Dr. Priest said. “Think about the source of the information you receive.”

In the months ahead, COVID-19 won’t be the only illness we will face. For Virginia and the Carolinas, flu season typically begins in November and can last as long as April. Novant Health is taking steps to prepare, putting together guidelines for providers, thinking through best practices and working to ensure we have all the tests we need to deal with a coexisting flu season. Dr. Priest also encouraged everyone to get a flu shot.

“I hope people will mask and therefore be more protected from influenza than they usually are,” Dr. Priest said. “Please be aware that just because we have a pandemic we’re fighting, it doesn’t mean the usual seasonal epidemics don’t come, and influenza is one of those.”

The medical community at Novant Health has made great strides to provide remarkable care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, though there is still much work to be done and some key statistics to watch. Dr. Priest said doctors would like to see the positivity rate for tests consistently under 5%, some degree of community immunity that is 60 to 70%, a sharp reduction in hospitalizations and a vaccine that is safe, effective and readily available.

“When we reach those milestones, we will be much closer to gathering safely together,” Dr. Priest said. “But please understand things have changed forever on some level. Medicine has changed forever. This effort is 100 years of progress in medicine in a very short period of time.  In the meantime, we don’t know when this pandemic will end, so we need to pace ourselves. Be patient and keep perspective.”

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