Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A “New Normal”: Health care providers are adapting to safely deliver services during the coronavirus pandemic.

As much as we’d like to get life back to normal, our idea of what is “normal” will need to change if we are to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and ensure the safety of our communities.

Until a vaccine is developed, we will be living what some have called a “new normal.”

That includes health care itself. Doctors and hospitals are changing the way they provide care in order to ensure a safe environment during this pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, doctors and health systems across the state focused their energy and resources on preparing for a surge of coronavirus patients. Per state guidelines, many surgeries and treatments were put on hold.

During this time, telemedicine use has skyrocketed. At UPMC Pinnacle, for example, it has risen from single-digit daily use in February to more than 1,100 video visits a day in early May.

Telemedicine uses state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology to provide real-time consultations and examinations. It provides a safe option for the patient and the provider, particularly if there is a concern about the patient having the coronavirus. Even after the virus is gone, telemedicine will remain an important part of our care.

However, not all care can be provided via telemedicine. For some things, like cancer care and surgeries, patients need to come to the office or hospital.

During the pandemic, many people have put off important medical care due to the state of emergency. With a leveling off of the virus in our area, the state is allowing many of these services to resume. But people may wonder if it is safe to get care.

Everything has risks, but health care providers across the region are taking steps to ensure the safety of patients and staff while providing the essential care that people need.

One of the first things you may notice is that many doctors’ offices are conducting prescreening. When you make an appointment to go to a provider office, you will likely be asked several questions to determine if you have any COVID-19 symptoms. This is to prevent exposure of the staff and other patients at the office.

If you go to your local hospital, it is likely that you—and all visitors and all staff—will be screened before you can enter. This screening can include questions to see if you have any COVID symptoms as well as a temperature check to identify a fever. Staff and visitors with symptoms or a fever are not allowed in and are instead directed to health care services.

Hospitals, long-term care facilities and cancer centers are also restricting visitation in order to avoid any potential spread of the virus. While health care facilities understand the concerns that patients and family members may have about this policy, this is a vital step to ensure the safety of all patients in the facility.

If you walk into a hospital today, you will immediately see a difference—all patient-facing staff members are wearing a mask and so are the patients. At UPMC Pinnacle, for example, we supply a mask to every patient-facing employee in our hospitals and cancer centers for them to use the entire day. Wearing a mask is required for staff. And if a patient comes in without a mask, we will provide one.

You will likely see the same thing at your doctor’s office. Staff and providers will be wearing a mask. You’ll also see a change in the waiting room. Patients and visitors may be asked to wait in their car until their appointment. And where a waiting room is necessary, seating is reduced to comply with social distancing.

High-touch surfaces at facilities are also getting frequent cleanings, including elevator push buttons, door handles, telephones, handrails, light switches, chairs, etc. Exam rooms, patient rooms and imaging equipment are also thoroughly cleaned after each use with a disinfectant approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

You’ll even see changes in the cafeterias at hospitals. They have probably removed all self-service foods, and they are sanitizing all high-touch surfaces and changing serving utensils every half hour during meal service times. You’ll also see less seating to support social distancing.

The coronavirus is a part of our lives. However, we continue to need health care services. The health care system is changing to address this issue while continuing to find ways to safely provide the essential services that area residents need.

John Goldman, MD, specializes in infectious disease at UPMC Pinnacle. For more information, visit

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