Sanford CMO: Behavior now will determine when pandemic ends

Our decisions now impact safety of loved ones, everyone else later

Sanford Health chief medical officer and Sanford Health News host sit facing each other while talking in a conference room. A photo collage of board members decorates the wall behind them.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Several months ago, that was a key message from Allison Suttle, M.D., Sanford Health chief medical officer, during a Facebook Live Q&A when the coronavirus began spreading to local communities.

Seven months later, Dr. Suttle sat down with Sanford Health News for another live event with a similar message.

Watch: Facebook Live Q&A with Dr. Allison Suttle, Oct. 7

With a rising number of cases, she says the public needs to stay diligent.

“That’s hard because we’ve been at this for a long time,” Dr. Suttle tells Sanford Health News. “I think there’s a rise in cases due to behavior … and the concern is that every one person who has COVID has the potential to spread it to two more and and so on. That’s how we get to this blossoming of increase in spread.”

With a direct correlation between behavior and a rise in cases, it’s time to get back to the basics like these CDC recommendations:

  • Washing your hands
  • Staying at least six feet apart from another person
  • Wearing a mask in public
  • Staying home when you’re sick

Concerning upward trend continues

While human behavior dictates how this virus spreads, Dr. Suttle says what we’ve seen in the last seven days will predict what we see next.

“We’ve seen an increase in cases which will continue and ultimately lead to hospitalizations. We start seeing those hospitalizations about two to three weeks after we see an increase in the number of cases. The only way we start seeing that trend decrease is if all the people start doing all of those behaviors and then we’ll see less cases, and then that downward trend.”

At this point, the trends will continue upward, she says.

“We sure hope that patients and our communities take note and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to go out. There’s a ton of cases out there in South Dakota, North Dakota; I’m going to do less. I’m going to stay home more. I’m going to be careful if I’m sick. I’m going to wear a mask.’ And hopefully we’ll see the trend go down.”

Get your flu shot

The impending flu season amid the coronavirus pandemic presents a hefty conundrum among health care workers with what is expected to be a typical volume of influenza including hospitalizations and deaths.

For Dr. Suttle, a rise in flu cases on top of COVID-19 cases is a huge concern.

Watch: What’s the difference between flu and COVID-19?

“It’s a concern because we need to use the same (personal protective equipment) for them that we would for COVID patients and we’re going to make sure we’ve got capacity,” Dr. Suttle said. “But if we can get more people vaccinated, that will free up beds and equipment and allow our staff to take care of COVID patients and the other hospitalized patients, the traumas, the heart attacks, the strokes, delivering babies, all the other things that are still going to happen.”

Medical leaders know the flu shot works and would like to see at least 20% more Sanford Health patients get the flu shot this year. On average, about 50% of patients get their flu shot each year.

“If that number was 70%, that would be amazing,” Dr. Suttle said.

Holiday planning and high-risk loved ones

Planning for the holidays will look different this year.

“My biggest concern for the holidays coming up is that we treat them like every other Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we get everybody together for multiple days and we just sit around and eat and everyone comes together.”

While the effects of COVID-19 aren’t as severe on the younger, healthy populations, they are still very real for grandparents and loved ones over 60 or living with chronic medical conditions.

Read: Your guide to a safe and happy Halloween

“I think what we need to consider is: Who are we getting together with? Who’s high risk? How long are we getting together? Can we wear masks when we’re indoors? Maybe get together for shorter amounts of time to decrease that aerosol spread and consider what I’m doing for those two weeks before so that I significantly decrease my risk of getting exposed and being pre-symptomatic when I go home for the holidays.”

She urges everyone to really consider holiday plans and think about keeping loved ones safe, this year.

“It’s a time to pause and take stock of where I am now: How am I going to get through the next several months of doing this? The only way we’re going to get through this is if we all take care of each other. If we all do those safety measures, numbers in North and South Dakota will go down. The only way that’s going to happen is if we change our behavior, and that’s going to allow us to get to that vaccine and get to the end of this.”

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Posted In Coronavirus, Expert Q&A, Flu