Dr. Judith Hunt

COVID-19 has brought ever-worsening infection, hospitalization, and sadly death rates to Arizona over the past weeks and months. Regional rural hospitals and clinics are feeling the strain, and our local healthcare system is no exception. Dr. Judy Hunt and third-year medical student Mareesa Spires give DJ Randy Roberson on the KRIM Community Spotlight program an overview of what the pandemic looks like from inside the front lines.

“Payson is an island. We don’t have a lot of the support systems that are in bigger places, bigger cities. We have had to discover our talents and our gifts and begin to pull together to address the problems we have with the pandemic in Payson and the Rim Country.”

She lists a disaster plan creation and county supplied PPE (personal protection equipment) for healthcare professionals and first responders.

Unsurprisingly, many healthcare workers have gotten sick as well, leading to staffing shortages, which further burdens the system.

“It’s a virus,” Dr. Hunt exclaims, “It’s insidious. It’s expected that people with prolonged exposure will get sick. Not only are we taking care of patients, but we are also taking care of each other. It breaks my heart. I count it a privilege to take care of them, but it’s not a privilege I wanted.”

In addition to the challenges of treating active COVID patients, in some cases, there are also long-term effects some patients continue to have that require ongoing care. Post-COVID syndrome symptoms have included requiring oxygen for a long time after the illness (sometimes months), inability to return to work due to cognitive memory issues, or a decline in physical abilities in relation to their baseline before having COVID.

Spires says it is difficult to predict who will recover quickly and have lingering symptoms long after the virus has gone. Dr. Hunt explains that 10 years ago the SARS pandemic that struck most heavily in Asia had a similar post-SARS syndrome covering multiple symptoms, factors, and body systems. It can be anywhere from 10-30% of patients who become infected with COVID that will suffer from residual symptoms long term, says Hunt, which includes patients who may have been asymptomatic initially, or those who did not need treatment hospitalization during their COVID illness. The post-COVID syndrome does not seem to have a recognizable pattern that allows practitioners to identify who will suffer lasting effects and who will recover easily.

Hunt also points out that patients showing lasting symptoms are often those of the working-age, which means that their ongoing illness puts them in danger of job loss, disability struggles, and insurance challenges.

In response to comments or naysayers on social media or in the community that likens the virus to the flu or downplays the seriousness of the pandemic, Dr. Hunt replies, “It’s incredibly sad. The focus needs to be us against the virus. In every other country in the world, it is against the virus, but here for some reason, it is against each other.”

For the third-year medical student Spires, navigating COVID has added another dimension to her medical education. In addition to what her curriculum would have been on any other given year, she has to now educate patients on the importance of hand hygiene, mask usage, social distancing, learn to navigate telemedicine technology, become familiar with CDC and health department protocols, and stay abreast of vaccination information to inform patients.

When speaking of the healthcare system, on the whole, Dr. Hunt admits the hospital is running out of beds. From there, it is a domino effect.

“Critical care beds are not there, which means we need to be putting the stopgaps in place ahead of that, trying to catch things earlier and earlier in the clinical settings before patients need a hospital setting because the hospital setting is overwhelmed.” She has many triage measures in place with patients to assess who can be cared for at home and who truly needs the precious few available hospital beds.

With a magic wand to wave where everyone had to pay attention, Spires’ message is simple, “COVID is genuine. People are getting sick, and people are dying. People are having long-term repercussions if they do recover. Our healthcare system is doing everything it can to educate everyone and let them know what the resources are. Still, everyone needs to take responsibility for the safety of themselves and their families. Small things like wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying away from large gatherings can be the difference of whether or not they or their loved ones get COVID and ultimately is what is best for them and best for the community.”

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