Tennessee Ill-prepared for Coming Flu Season Complicated by COVID-19

I am Dr. Diana Sepehri-Harvey, a primary care physician in Franklin, board certified in Family Medicine.  I have been practicing medicine for 10 years. I became a physician because I love partnering with patients to optimize health and prevent illness.

I want to start by telling you a little about what I am experiencing and observing on the ground in Tennessee right now.  Since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic in March, my colleagues and I have done all we can to stay safe and continue caring for our patients.  We have designated separate sites for COVID-19 testing.  We have created effective screening tools. We have, out of necessity, learned to efficiently ration our personal protective equipment so that there is enough to protect us while we are treating patients with COVID-19.  We put these protocols in place in the spring, thinking that we would be in a different place in the fall, fully expecting that by now as a country we would have been able to flatten the curve and get the spread of the virus under control.

Unfortunately, in Tennessee and many other states, the spread of the virus is still not under control.  Early on, while some of our elected leaders were downplaying the seriousness of this virus, many physicians, scientists and healthcare professionals reached out to local officials and advocated for stay safe, stay at home policy. When these public health measures were finally implemented, it clearly worked in lowering the curve and slowing the spread of the virus. 

However, the ground we gained in this battle against COVID-19 was quickly lost with hasty reopening plans and failures to implement clear public health guidelines such as universal masking.  In July, here in Tennessee we witnessed another surge, worse than the initial one and it claimed many more lives, irreversible losses that could have been prevented.

As primary care providers on the front lines, we are still not equipped to do what is required to address this public health crisis. 

Specifically, we cannot do rapid testing at the point of care and do not have adequate PPE.  We are rapidly approaching flu season and anticipate seeing a larger patient volume, many of whom will have symptoms similar to coronavirus. 

Without access to adequate testing and rapid testing in particular, how will we differentiate flu from coronavirus?  Without adequate PPE, how will we protect ourselves and our staff?   Despite having six months to prepare, the state still does not have the necessary infrastructure in place to handle the coming storm of a flu season complicated by deadly coronavirus.

Finally, we are not only physicians, many of us are parents with school-age children.  We know the science, and we know that it IS NOT SAFE for our children to be back in school.  So, we have had to adapt by cutting back our clinic hours, working from home and offering virtual visits, so that we are able to keep our children at home. Similarly, our staff has had to cut back on their hours or simply quit because of having to prioritize their family’s health and wellbeing over their jobs. These staffing shortages not only impact our clinics, but also our hospitals’ capacity to admit and treat COVID-19 patients.  

If the Governor does not implement a mask mandate immediately and schools continue to reopen for in-person classes before the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, I fear that infections in our state will spiral further out of control.  Not taking the necessary actions now could place us between two avoidable options: choosing between another state shut down or worse, accepting thousands more avoidable hospitalizations and deaths among our children, teachers, parents and their families.

At this point, we are already facing staffing shortages.  Hospital capacity to admit and treat COVID-19 patients is dependent on adequate staffing capacity.  

As healthcare professionals, our job is to follow the science and to be truthful.  As a country, we have the talent, skills, and resources to get this pandemic under control, but we need leadership that prioritizes the protection of human life. What we all voted for and what we deserve is leadership that is willing to listen to public health experts and implement policies that reflect science. 

Every day, my colleagues, our healthcare staff and I are putting our lives on the front line fighting this pandemic.  We want to know that if we contract COVID-19 or if we have to quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, we will be covered.  We need for our country and our state leaders to mask up, step up, and commit the resources necessary to take care of our frontline heroes.  We need to know that if we put our lives on the line, we will be covered.  This includes providing full sick pay, adequate child care, and an ample supply of PPE. 

To our elected official, Governor Lee, we took an oath to protect our patients and we do that every day.  We need you to protect us by requiring a mask mandate to get this virus under control before we send our children back to in-person classes, before we enter a flu season that could be devastating to our staff, our hospitals and our communities. 

Not one more, not one more Tennessean needs to get sick or die from COVID-19.  Not one more family needs to be torn apart by this virus, a pandemic is no time for partisanship or politics, it is a time for public health mandates and the time to act is now!