Oct 21, 2020 - Health

The overwhelming aftershocks of the pandemic

Illustration of gloved hand holding a sponge cleaning away viruses
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic will wreak havoc on the U.S. health care system long after it ends — whenever that may be.

Why it matters: The pre-pandemic health care system was already full of holes, many of which have been exposed and exacerbated over the past several months, and many Americans will be stuck with that system as they grapple with the long-term consequences of the pandemic.

The big picture: The pandemic has caused a crushing wave of mental health problems, exposed longstanding racial disparities, caused people to delay care for other conditions, and likely created new long-term health problems for many coronavirus survivors.

Mental and behavioral health issues are especially concerning, experts say.

  • The number of people looking for help with anxiety or depression has dramatically increased since last year, according to a new report from the advocacy group Mental Health America.
  • “Severe depression, severe anxiety, psychosis that’s already emerged — they aren’t going to go away just because one of the precipitating factors goes away, like the pandemic,” MHA president and CEO Paul Gionfriddo said.
  • Tens of thousands of Americans were overdosing on opioids every year, and the epidemic appears to have gotten worse during the pandemic, the WSJ recently reported.

Between the lines: The pandemic has painfully exposed deep racial disparities within the health care system and beyond, which will only continue to hurt people of color.

  • Mental health services are often inaccessible and unaffordable — especially in the communities that have already faced the worst impacts of both the virus and the economic collapse.

What's next: While the government and private insurers have tried to pick up all or most of the costs of coronavirus treatment, patients with long-term side effects will have to navigate the same patchwork system that has made chronic conditions so expensive for years.

  • Meanwhile, there could be a spike in demand for care for unrelated health conditions that went undiagnosed or untreated during the pandemic. Cancer screenings, for example, plummeted at the height of the pandemic, worrying medical experts.
  • “There’s really almost no way that doesn’t turn into increased mortality,” with the full effects likely to play out over a decade, Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, told the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line: Even as we prepare to endure what’s likely to be a very painful winter, all signs point to a host of future problems that we’d be wise to begin addressing today.

Go deeper