Labor Day unofficially marks the end of summer for many parts of the country, setting the stage for an uncertain autumn in which medical group practices contend with the triple threats of increased COVID-19, flu and RSV cases.
According to an Aug. 29, 2023, MGMA Stat poll, more than seven in 10 (73%) of medical groups report that they have not changed their policies around COVID-19 in the past three months. That’s compared to about one in five (21%) medical groups that have updated policies at the same time, while another 6% report they are considering changes.
The poll had 526 applicable responses.
The lack of major changes on the policy side is not surprising, as new variants have only just emerged and case counts — for COVID-19 and Influenza A — have seen a rapid spike in numerous regions of the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that hospitalizations and deaths tied to COVID-19 jumped 19% and 21%, respectively, last week, with more than half of U.S. states reporting a 20% or larger increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations week over week.
Mask rules: Some never changed
If COVID-19 case counts continue their upward trend, several practice leaders told MGMA that they are considering expanding the areas where masks are required within their facilities. Some are shifting to a uniform rule for staff to wear masks as a matter of public health and to preserve staffing levels amid ongoing difficulties recruiting and hiring.
While not as common, some respondents said they would consider requirements for staff and visitors to mask. Other practice leaders said they have never let their guard down against COVID-19.
“We have not ever stopped our COVID protocols for when patients are in the office,” one respondent told MGMA, who noted that the next steps for the group would be masking and distancing in staff-only areas, such as lunch/break room areas.
Vaccine education efforts to ramp up
Beyond those measures, one medical group leader said this fall would be an appropriate time to revisit the organization’s policies on vaccination requirements — with a new slate of COVID-19 vaccines designed for this year’s dominant strains of coronavirus, medical group leaders will be in a position to encourage patients and their staff to get shots for protection not just against COVID-19 but also the flu and possibly RSV.
However, there remains uncertainty over what vaccination campaigns might look like, as updated COVID-19 booster shots may not be available until late September.
- Read more from Axios: “COVID boosters are still weeks away as cases surge in the U.S.”
Policies built to last
But the fact remains that a substantial number of medical groups either have not experienced COVID-19 case spikes in their area significant enough to trigger a change in how they operate, or the policies they have are designed to respond when stronger public health protections are necessary.
One practice leader said he hoped that changes won’t be necessary but that the organization has “instituted further cleaning protocols in patient rooms and lobbies” to mitigate potential exposure.
“We will make our decision based on surges and local market trends,” said another respondent to the new poll.
Practice leaders also expressed that they anticipate increased interest in telehealth for acute illness this fall as the combination of COVID-19, flu and RSV cases might spike patient demand.