This week, the first round of people began receiving a vaccine against COVID-19 in the United States. That offers some hope that we’ll finally be able to get the pandemic under control. Some people may take the arrival of a vaccine to mean that they can wait a few more months for that mammogram or colonoscopy they have been putting off since the coronavirus hit U.S. shores. But it will be months before everyone can get vaccinated. And postponing routine care can have a very real and deadly cost.
In the early days of the pandemic, people abruptly stopped going to the doctor. Visits to ambulatory care providers dropped nearly 60% in the final week of March compared to the first week of the month, according to research from the Commonwealth Fund.
By October, doctor visits had largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels. But that means people were seeking care at abnormally low levels for six months.
UnitedHealth reports that its beneficiaries underwent nearly 1 million fewer mammograms, colorectal cancer, and cervical cancer screenings in the first eight months of 2020 than in the same period last year. An analysis by the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science projected that 22 million cancer screenings were delayed between early April and early June.
Of these decisions to delay routine screenings and care, Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s really almost no way that doesn’t turn into increased mortality.”
It’s obviously important for people to reduce their risk of being exposed to the coronavirus by staying home when possible, keeping their distance from others, and wearing a mask. But it’s also important for them to continue to get routine care. Postponing such care indefinitely is not cost-free. It can be deadly.
Sally C. Pipes is the president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.