For many Americans, COVID-19 appears to be a thing of the past.
But the nation’s health care providers aren’t so lucky. They continue to treat hundreds of thousands of new cases each week even while they process the emotional toll the pandemic has had on them.
“I think we all still remember how scared we were in 2020,” says Kentucky Medical Association President Dr. Monalisa Tailor. “This was something we’d never seen, we didn’t know how to treat it, we didn’t know what these patients would look like, we didn’t know if we were going to take this virus home to our loved ones at the end of the day.”
The KMA represents the state’s doctors in Frankfort, provides continuing education opportunities to its members, conducts public health campaigns on important medical issues, and works to ensure patients receive quality health care. Tailor is the youngest and first female president of color for the 171-year-old organization.
“It’s been so wonderful to meet people across the state, and especially medical students who are just so excited to see someone who is younger, someone who looks like them,” she says.
The Bowling Green native and internal medicine physician finds herself leading KMA at a time when COVID remains a public health concern, yet many people have stopped following masking, social distancing, and vaccination guidance. Meanwhile, she says providers are facing high workloads, increasing paperwork and red tape, professional burnout, and a rising tide of anti-science sentiment.
“Mistrust and misinformation among our patients could be considered an epidemic in itself,” Tailor said when she became KMA president last September. “Now more than ever, we need to come together as physicians to combat these issues and reinvigorate ourselves so that we can continue to provide the best care for the people of the commonwealth.”
Tailor’s priorities as president include helping doctors improve their own mental health by reconnecting them with each other and to what drew them into the profession in the first place.
“What brings us joy, why are we still here, and how do we better collaborate to create a sense of community – because that experience that we all went through, we went through it together,” she says. “There’s some brotherhood, some collaboration and camaraderie that can happen if we can have conversations about that.”
COVID Continues to Pose Threats
As if COVID alone wasn’t a big enough challenge, doctors faced a “triple-demic” last fall of COVID, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV. Tailor attributes the sharp rise in those common viruses to Americans returning to their pre-pandemic activities and schools resuming in-person instruction. That led to doctors being overwhelmed with RSV cases in babies and children, and set the stage for one of the worst flu seasons in recent years, which Tailor says spiked two months earlier than usual. While RSV has subsided, she says data from South Africa indicates that Americas could face a second peak of influenza in the coming weeks.
“And to top that off we’ve got seven other viruses floating around… seven other cold viruses,” says Tailor.
So-called long COVID also remains an issue, affecting about one in five people who contract the virus. Tailor says she’s had patients with no underlying health conditions develop lingering symptoms such as headaches, loss of taste and smell, respiratory problems, brain fog, and blood clots that can last for months and, in some cases, years.
“I can tell you from seeing my patients who first got COVID starting in March of 2020, they’ve been dealing with fatigue, they’ve been dealing with the shortness of breath,” says Tailor. “I’ve had to start a few of them on inhalers just to help their breathing.”
At the same time, only about 16 percent of Americans have received the latest COVID booster, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tailor says the bivalent shot doesn’t guarantee a person won’t become infected, but it does help minimize the impacts if he or she does.
“If you have not had a new COVID vaccine since September 2022, please go get one,” she says. “This latest version of the COVID bivalent booster covers against the Omicron variant, and that’s going to give you that layer of protection for this year.”
While some people do have adverse reactions to the COVID vaccines, Tailor says they can usually be mitigated by taking a Tylenol or Benadryl before receiving the shot.
“It is a risk-benefit analysis,” she says. “It’s a case-by-case basis and this is why that relationship with your health care provider is so important because they know you and they’re going to use that information to help make the best decision with you.”
Challenges Across Health Care
Tailor acknowledges that it’s difficult to see most doctors for more than a few minutes at a time. She says studies indicate that providers need 27 hours in their days to complete their work. That’s why she encourages patients to be their own advocates and come to doctor’s appointments with a list of specific questions or concerns. She also cautions people about doing too much self-diagnosis through online resources.
“Google can be your friend; it can also be your enemy,” says Tailor. “It is a good source of information if you need a definition or if you want to get an idea of what your medication side effects might be.”
As she looks to the future, Tailor says she’s not only concerned about pressures on doctors but on the entire health care industry. For example, she says 90 percent of pharmacists are facing burnout due to high workloads, short staffing, and a range of new duties like providing vaccinations and COVID tests. She says that impacts patients who face longer wait times to get prescriptions filled and shorter pharmacy hours.
Tailor says doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers all want to help patients feel better, but with lingering challenges in the industry, some of those providers are considering a new profession.
“I’ve talked to friends who already have their game plan for what their next career is going to be, and it has nothing to do with medicine,” she says.