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The Pandemic After 120 Days

Curis Barnett, #MaskUpAR
Curtis Barnett President and CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield

At the time I’m writing this, just over 120 days have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020. Yes, I agree; it seems much, much longer. We’ve experienced so many things we previously could not have imagined.

We’ve learned a lot: about leadership, about our institutions, about our ingenuity, about our concern and respect for one another, about courage, about our own resilience, and, oh yes, we’ve learned a lot about COVID-19.

What have we learned

We’ve learned what works in controlling the spread of COVID-19; not just here in the United States but all around the world. We’ve learned that COVID-19 is highly contagious and it can be catastrophic and deadly, especially for those with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. We also know that social distancing, washing hands and wearing face coverings or masks in public work. And, using those tools, we can carefully re-open some businesses. We must remain vigilant in controlling the spread of COVID-19. We need to be thinking about the next 200 days, to fall and winter, when COVID-19 and the flu could be circulating together.

Contact tracing

We know testing, tracing and isolating works. This classic public health approach involves identifying people who have come into contact with an infected person (contact tracing), testing them, and then isolating them if they test positive so they cannot infect others. But these activities have to be done in large numbers to have a significant impact. In Arkansas, the governor and public health officials are pushing hard to increase the levels of testing and contact tracing. At Arkansas Blue Cross, we’re doing our part. We’ve committed well over 100 of our employees to work with the Arkansas Department of Health on contact tracing.

Mental health

We have learned that the pandemic, combined with the economic downturn, unemployment and social unrest, is taking a tremendous toll on people’s mental health. We’ve seen troubling increases in suicide, substance abuse, depression and anxiety. We likely face a mental health epidemic once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

There are a few silver linings. More people struggling with mental health conditions are willing to reach out for help, whether it’s to a hotline or their health plan. You see that many people are finally willing to accept that mental health is as important as physical health to our overall well-being, and that the two are deeply connected. A recent survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council after the pandemic started revealed that 82% of teens aged 13 to 19 believe America should talk more openly and honestly about mental health. That’s an encouraging sign as we strive to remove the stigma around mental health.

Patients and providers are much more willing to use new technologies, like telehealth, to treat mental health conditions, which is allowing us to overcome social and economic barriers to care. For Arkansas Blue Cross, well over 25% of our telehealth visits since March have been for mental health services.

Take action

No question, better days are ahead. Right now we must stay focused on our efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 by doing the things that we know work. And, we need to take care of ourselves and each other. I encourage you to take advantage of the mental health resources available from your health plan or in your communities, and check on your family, friends, co-workers and neighbors and let them know you care.

We should look to the next 120 days with hope and determination.

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