How COVID Is Affecting Urgent Care Staffing During Flu Season

Typically, when flu season hits, urgent care centers see a significant uptick in the number of flu patients they treat. People tend to show up with fever, body aches and other classic flu symptoms. They ask for a flu test and some hope to receive a prescription for an antiviral medication like Tamiflu or Xofluza.

This year, however, is not like other years. The nation is in the throes of a surging coronavirus pandemic. Urgent care centers are still seeing an increase in patients, but most are less worried about flu and more worried about COVID-19.

Many centers have already prepared to bring in additional staff during cold and flu season. In fact, at this time of year, many medical facilities facing an influx of flu patients turn to locum tenens staff to help meet the needs of patients in their communities.“Generally, yes, there is a ramp up” in staffing, says Lou Ellen Horwitz, CEO of the Urgent Care Association (UCA), noting that October through March tends to be the busiest season for the urgent care industry.

Many patients already associate a visit to urgent care with the flu season. If more patients continue to seek testing, diagnosis and care for COVID-19 at urgent care centers in the coming months, the demand could also affect staffing needs.  

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What is flu season shaping up to look like?

As of early December, flu cases across the country haven’t reached alarming levels in the 2020-2021 flu season.

Bruce Bobek, DO, a locum tenens physician who’s currently working at a VA clinic in Washington State, hasn’t yet encountered any cases of the flu this season, the key word being “yet.”

“I have not seen any so far,” says Bobek. “I’m sure we’ll get flu, though.”

Typically, flu season begins to ramp up in January in the Pacific Northwest, he adds, with January through April being the worst months for flu cases.

Recently, Walgreens released its Walgreens Flu Index for the 2020-2021 flu season so customers could track flu activity in their community. According to the index, flu activity is currently low overall across the nation compared to a normal flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also maintains a Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, and reports that for the week ending December 5, 2020, flu cases are lower than usual for this time of year.

This could be attributed in part to the emphasis on safety precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, like social distancing, face mask wearing and handwashing. While those measures can slow the transmission of COVID-19, they may also be slowing the spread of other infectious diseases like influenza.

But it’s still early.

As flu season gets underway, and the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, health leaders expect to see a definite impact on the nation’s urgent care centers.

“We know that many will be seeking testing and looking to us to help distinguish between respiratory symptoms and provide proper diagnosis,” says Jane Trombetta, chief clinical officer at MedExpress Urgent Care.

Like many urgent care centers, MedExpress already offers COVID-19 testing at many of its 200+ locations. As flu season wears on and the coronavirus pandemic continues, Trombetta predicts that more patients will seek out urgent care centers for both flu testing and COVID testing.

Eventually, members of the public may also visit urgent care centers to receive COVID-19 vaccines, which may also drive the need for more staff. If urgent care centers do begin offering vaccinations, “that doesn’t mean that testing will go away,” says Horwitz.

The specifics still remain to be seen, however. “It is such a moving target,” says Horwitz. 

If you plan to work locums in urgent care…

Physicians and other providers who take a locum tenens position in an urgent care setting during an ordinary flu season know that they’re going to be busy.

This year, however, brings the additional safety precautions and the responsibilities of counseling patients about COVID-testing and related issues, like quarantining and isolating. Eventually, it may also include talking about the COVID vaccination with patients.

Bobek is not intimidated by the prospect. As a seasoned physician who spent much of his career in an intensive care setting, “I’ve seen it all,” he says.

He does have some advice for the locum tenens providers who may be gearing up to take on assignments in urgent care settings in the coming months: just be cautious.

“I would treat everybody as having COVID. I would. Especially now with the uptick in COVID cases nationally,” says Bobek, explaining the importance of always taking precautions like wearing face masks, face shields, gowns and gloves, and wiping down rooms in between patients.

Yet, it’s also important to not develop what Horwitz calls “COVID tunnel vision.” Some people will present with symptoms that may lead you to suspect they have COVID, and it’s worth taking those precautions, but you can’t make assumptions.

“You can’t automatically assume they have COVID,” she says. “And just because their COVID test is negative doesn’t mean they don’t have something else.”

Locums may also find it worthwhile to spend some time familiarizing themselves with the testing capability—including the various types of COVID tests and when they’re appropriate—and the public health requirements in the community in which they will be practicing.

Don’t neglect your own health, either, Bobek adds. “You can’t help patients if you’re not well yourself,” he says.

Related:

How COVID-19 Has Raised Interest in Locum Tenens Jobs
Healthy Habits to Prevent the Flu During the Pandemic

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