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Battling Coronavirus COVID-19, Broadband Could Provide Relief Although Telemedicine May Not Help

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of President Donald Trump, joined by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, listens as Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, addresses a briefing on the COVID-19 coronavirus on Jan. 29, 2020, in the Situation Room of the White House, by Joyce Boghosian

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2020 - As cases of the novel coronavirus expand in the United States, Americans are struggling to address changes that have, or are coming, to their lifestyle.

Broadband connectivity may be an important factor in confronting the growing pandemic. However, the impact of telemedicine in dealing with the COVID-19 disease may be limited.

COVID-19 is mainly spread through person-to-person contact. As infections continue to spread in the U.S., self-isolation and growing quarantines are becoming more likely. These aspects of isolation could affect large communities of people – and perhaps until a vaccine is available in a year or more.

But in addition to being a test of medical emergency preparedness, the COVID-19 panic may also become a test of broadband access.

Indeed, while the digital divide has been a constant discussion point in Congress and at agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, an outbreak of COVID-19 could expose the harsh realities of entire communities left on the wrong side of internet access.

The impact of broadband upon confronting the COVIP-19 pandemic

Ten years ago, the National Broadband Plan was released. In 2020, many remain unconnected, creating both rural and urban digital divides.

Ironically, universal broadband could facilitate the connection and resources people need to survive and make due during quarantines that may be part of a broader outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Isolation would impact the ability to work, go to school, go to the doctor, go to church, and participate in everyday activities. Ultimately, broadband is the tool that can allow work from home, online school, telemedicine, and online worship.

While broadband can connect people to work, education and worship, without universal or widespread buildout, broadband only connects some of us.

Global response to person-to-person spread by curtaining public events and worship

The global COVID-19 death count is now more than 3,000, with more than 100,000 infested. Different countries and regions of the globe are taking different approaches to stem the spread.

BBC News reports that “France has banned all indoor gatherings of more than 5,000 people,” and even cancelled the Paris half-marathon.

Italy, the European country taking the brunt of COVID-19 so far, has organized zones depending on the situation of an area, reports Holly Ellyatt for CNBC.

Red zones are quarantined, but the “yellow zones” are engaging in preemptive cautions like closed schools, and “sports events and religious and cultural spaces have been postponed or canceled,” writes Ellyatt.

Steve Holland and Julie Harte, reporting for Sight Magazine, wrote that “churches closed in South Korea as many held online services instead, with authorities looking to rein in public gatherings.”

Tad Walch of the  Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah, reporting on global worship, reported that “from Italy to Singapore, congregations affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak either held virtual fast-and-testimony meetings on YouTube or Zoom or didn’t meet at all.”

Fast-and-testimony meeting refers to a service held the first Sunday of every month in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Across several countries, these worship services were either cut short or – in Italy – not held in person at all.

How telecommuting and tele-education are adapting to COVID-19

Rather than gather in large groups and risk the spread of disease, broadband technology is providing worship and connections that allow people to avoid potentially contaminated places.

For some professions, telecommuting could be a viable option to avoid infection.

Twitter announced on its blog that employees should be working from home across the world if feasible.

“We recognize that working from home is not ideal for some job functions. For those employees who prefer or need to come into the offices, they will remain open for business,” said Twitter.

However, Twitter said the company has already “been moving towards a more distributed workforce that’s increasingly remote.”

A Washington state school district cancelled school to “train employees on how to teach children remotely, should the outbreak worsen,” reports Mike Baker and Karen Weise for the New York Times.

But the “homework gap” may be exacerbated because many homes lack access to broadband. What will happen to schoolchildren in their broadband deserts?

“For families without laptops or internet access, the district was working to provide computers and internet hot spots,” report Baker and Weise.

A petition with over 10,000 signatures is calling for the University of Washington to close its campus, write Baker and Weise.

The implications of closing a major university for an extended period of time with over 45,000 students at the Seattle campus are devastating, for students and employees.

The impact of telemedicine upon COVID-19 will likely be more limited

Just as many in South Korea worshiped online rather than physically gather together, telemedicine could – theoretically – limit person-to-person contact, while still facilitating health access.

Using telemedicine, patients with access to broadband can communicate directly with their health professionals from their own home. This means patients do not have to travel to their doctor or risk catching something in the doctor’s waiting room.

Unfortunately, using telehealth to cope with COVID-19 is not so cut and dry, said Craig Settles, a broadband enthusiast and telemedicine expert.

“To do any type of examination for the virus, you need to have a device that allows you to hear the sound of [your] lungs,” said Settles. He said such a Bluetooth-enabled device allowing doctors to listen to a patient’s heart or lung sounds from a remote location does exist, although is not in widespread use.

Telemedicine would be a better option for regular patients once they have already acquired telemedicine equipment that he or she will use more than once, explained Settles.

Global Telemedicine Group President Jay Sanders said telemedicine has many benefits, but conceded that as COVID-19 is a disease that can “impact the lungs,” and patients may need initial assessments completed in a hospital or medical provider’s office.

“It may be very difficult, especially if the individual is complaining of shortness of breath, for a telemedicine physician to be able to make a determination whether this is COVID-19 or just a common upper respiratory infection,” explained Sanders.

The best scenario for telemedicine would be to “keep the patient in their particular location like their home and not out in a crowd” and “monitoring their symptoms,” said Sanders.

Sanders added that “continuous care can easily be provided through telemedicine.”

Assuming that a patient has access to technology and broadband connection, “the ease of use is your smartphone or your computer,” added Sanders.

Kim Almkuist, a family nurse practitioner in North Carolina, said that she currently provides telemedicine, but her community only has access to one Bluetooth-enabled stethoscope, meaning patients have to travel to the nurse who has the device, and then she can provide care from her location. Almkuist uses TytoCare devices.

Almkuist said it wouldn’t realistic for every patient to have the device, which can cost about two to three thousand dollars. However, if more communities had access to telehealth devices or positive, quarantined COVID-19 patients had the equipment, then they could receive quality telemedicine care.

“I do think that there is still a place for telemedicine, especially in a quarantine” situation, said Almkuist.

If you can afford the devices, then telehealth is useful, said Settles. Some states do not have “consumer-friendly telehealth” because “it’s not ensured the same way in every state,” said Settles.

Telemedicine still has not be widely adopted into our healthcare system, so it is not an affordable or practical option still for many people.

If telemedicine was widespread and a viable option in the event of a pandemic, then broadband access would be the first tool to facilitate health and safety.

What are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying about COVID-19?

So far, the CDC has identified three symptoms of COVID-19: fever, cough, shortness of breath.

The CDC has identified various precautions to avoid contamination. Below a few are listed:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Although the CDC warns that infection could occur from contaminated objects, “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Ultimately, person-to-person spread is the main form of infection.

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