Understanding Houston's New Normal — and What It Means for Each of Us

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By Marc L. Boom, MD
President and CEO of Houston Methodist

COVID-19 has impacted each and every one of us, and our community has made some enormous sacrifices since this new coronavirus appeared.

This has been one of the most devastating health crises I've witnessed in my 25-plus years as a physician and hospital administrator. But even through the darkness, we've also seen great hope throughout our COVID-19 journey.

Thanks to the early and decisive actions by our leaders and the united response from our entire community, Houston has "flattened the curve" and seen significantly fewer deaths than other large cities. Our health care workers, researchers and frontline personnel have all played important roles in getting us to where we are today — and giving us hope.

Now, because of the sacrifices and efforts made by everyone during this unprecedented event, our leaders are slowly and cautiously beginning to reopen Houston.

We can't expect an immediate return to the way things were, but we can start talking about what Houston's new normal might look like — as well as what this new normal means for each of us.

The new coronavirus will be with us for some time

We're seeing COVID-19 cases plateau in Houston, but we're by no means finished with this virus.

As we begin to reopen, utilizing testing and contact tracing will be needed to help keep COVID-19 cases as isolated as possible — ensuring that we continue to keep a lid on the spread of this virus.

There's also still much to be learned about the new coronavirus, such as whether or not reinfection is possible and how long immunity lasts. And while we hope we won't have a new surge of cases in Houston, uncertainty remains in whether there will be seasonality with COVID-19 — similar to what we see with influenza. These are all questions that will be answered with time.

We do know that getting "back to normal" rests in the hands of the brilliant researchers and physician-scientists working hard to create a safe and effective vaccine to this brand-new virus, as well as to identify new treatment options that can help tide us over in the meantime.

Reopening the city only works if we all make efforts to do so safely

Incrementally reopening the city is in everyone's best interest, but we must be sure we're doing so safely. As restrictions placed on parks, businesses and services in our community begin to ease, it's imperative that we do so at a judicious pace and in the right way for each industry.

As retail shops and restaurants open, we will need to avoid gathering as crowds and continue to maintain six feet of space between ourselves and others. In addition, everyone will need to wear masks.

This gradual and thoughtful reopening of Houston will enable us to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as to react quickly if the city becomes unsafe. The leaders of the Texas Medical Center have released a daily dashboard of early warning indicators of COVID-19 infections.

In addition, people who are at high risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19 may want to continue to be extra cautious, even as restrictions are lifted.

Cloth masks and social distancing remain essential

Even as the city reopens, each and every one of us must continue our efforts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. This means staying committed to social distancing, constant hand hygiene and wearing cloth face masks while in public.

By now, most of us likely understand the importance of hand washing and social distancing — but wearing a cloth mask may be a more difficult adjustment.

The new coronavirus is primarily droplet-spread, meaning that when an infected person coughs, clears his or her throat or even speaks, he or she is potentially spreading the virus to the surfaces and people around them. While social distancing can help limit the impact of droplet-spread, a cloth mask adds a second, physical layer of protection.

In addition, we've learned that a significant portion of people infected with the new coronavirus do not experience symptoms, but are still contagious. This means even seemingly healthy people may, unknowingly, spread infectious droplets out in the community, making masks more important than ever.

As we reopen sectors of the city, we can't always guarantee six feet of distance between ourselves and others. And while cloth masks help reduce the risk of spreading the virus in closer distances, they are not a replacement for continuing to keep your distance from others. Social distancing and cloth masks are complementary strategies that, when used together, can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

I recommend thinking of cloth masks as a social contract between each and every one of us. When I wear a cloth mask out in public, I'm not wearing it to protect myself — I'm wearing it to protect you and everyone else. When we all do this together, we can significantly reduce the spread of this virus.

Our hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics and doctor offices are safe

Everything we do at Houston Methodist is done with the safety of our patients in mind.

In an abundance of caution, we postponed many surgeries, procedures and in-person office visits as COVID-19 cases began to rise in the Greater Houston area.

Now that cases have plateaued, we feel confident in our ability to take care of both COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients. And given that this virus is going to be with us for some time, we can't continue to postpone community health needs, including medically necessary surgeries.

Please know that whether you need emergency care at one of our emergency departments, a medically necessary procedure in our hospitals or specialty care in our clinics, we always put your safety above all else.

First, we're taking extra precautions — such as requiring all patients, visitors and employees to wear a mask, implementing social distancing in our waiting rooms and elevating our cleaning and housekeeping practices. While these changes may make your visit look a little different than usual, know that it's safe to come to us for the care you need.

Second, we continue to leverage and embrace our many telemedicine options, including Virtual Urgent Care, E-Visits and MyChart video visit. While some medical care requires in-person tests or consultations, routine health and wellness checkups can be effectively performed via telemedicine. Virtual health care will remain an important component of how we deliver care safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finding purpose and developing a routine can help ground you amidst the change

Just as this virus will be with us for some time, adjusting to unusual circumstances will remain important for some time, too.

Social distancing will continue to be a powerful way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially for our vulnerable populations.

If you're feeling cooped up at home, consider using this time to delve into hobbies and projects previously placed on the back burner. Find meaningful work and projects that keep your mind and body engaged. And continue to keep a healthy routine — set your alarm, shower, walk the dog, make dinner and maybe even get dressed up now and then.

Being asked to continue to stay home and practice social distancing for an unforeseeable length of time can, understandably, cause frustration, stress and anxiety. Our mental health should always be a priority, and self check-ins are increasingly important as we continue to adjust to this new normal.

One of the best ways to help manage stress is to get outside and go for a walk, if you're physically able. Walking is a safe, low-intensity exercise known to not only benefit your health but also relieve stress.

Lastly, remember that staying socially distant is not the same as becoming socially isolated. As restrictions ease, it remains important to limit large group gatherings and close contact — but maintaining family bonds and friendships is also crucial. While your social plans may come in the form of a video chat more often than an in-person meetup, staying connected with your loved ones will help you adjust and cope to this new normal.

We're calling it "Houston's New Normal" since things can't truly go back to the way they were until we have a vaccine. But if we stay the course, remaining committed to protecting each other and supporting our communities and local businesses, Houston's COVID-19 journey will continue to be one of hope.

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