HHS Secretary tours Bellin Health: ‘We need to coexist with COVID-19’

HHS Secretary Alex Azar talks to health professionals at Bellin Health Wednesday afternoon
Published: Jun. 24, 2020 at 5:06 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) -The US Secretary of Health and Human Services toured Bellin Health Wednesday spreading a clear message to people in Northeast Wisconsin. While talking to Bellin health professionals, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said he now has a better understanding of how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted people’s general health, noting a concerning drop in important preventative health care services.

“Here in Green Bay, the number of colonoscopies and mammograms dropped by over 90% from March to April, joint replacements declined by over 90% and primary care visits fell 75%,” said Azar.

The Secretary makes it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t stop people from getting the care they need, whether it’s related to the virus or not.

“The right way to think about reopening isn’t health vs. the economy, it is health vs. health. With the right public health work, we can respond to outbreaks and surges of the virus while helping Americans safely receive the health care they need…, coexisting with COVID-19,” said Azar. “Our healthcare systems, whether Bellin or our community health centers or your doctor’s office, have learned in the months that have passed, how do you really design systems to keep your patients and your staff safe? That’s why we say you can re-engage. Get your health care done, get your preventive services … because you can do so safely these are being in a health care facility now is an incredibly safe place to be from an infectious disease perspective.”

Azar said the reason many hospitals deferred elective procedures back in March was to make sure there was enough personal protective equipment to go around. He said now hospitals have a plan in place to help all patients once again.

“Thanks to the response of President Trump, the response of our governors or local authorities, and especially the heroism of our healthcare workers who were all standing around today, we have the tools to actually coexist with COVID-19,” said Azar.

“We know we can’t wait it out. So what I hope to see from the secretary are new policies and practices that extend some of the federal wavers that have been put into place during the emergency order that allow us to continue to practice in the way we have been practicing, that takes away some of the paper work and makes it easy for our caregivers to do the right thing for our patients and puts them first,” said Chris Woleski, president and CEO of Bellin Health.

Although a new Marquette Law School poll shows Wisconsinites are less concerned about COVID-19 than they were a month ago, Azar said the virus is still here and people should continue taking extra precautions to protect themselves and others.

“We got to continue taking this seriously. Every individual is tasked to think about themselves, their family, their community, but that still is consistent with getting back to work, getting back to school, getting back to worship, getting back to health care,” said Azar. “The point is, you don’t need to be just at home to be safe. You can be reengaged in the community and still be safe and also be protecting other people if you engage in safe behaviors.”

“I would ask in Wisconsin, while there isn’t a mandate for masking, that people really take it seriously. We are not through flattening the curve,” said Woleske. “I wear a mask because I want to protect you and you wear a mask because you want to protect me, so it’s about respect for each other. It’s not political. There’s evidence to say it does slow and stop the spread and that is what we need more than anything to protect each other.”

Azar also announced that HHS is awarding more than $400,000 to the Oneida Nation as part of a CDC program to support Tribal Public Health capacity for responding to COVID-19. He said the Oneida Nation will be using these funds to assess their preparedness and response to strengthen their ability to combat the virus, which includes developing real-time communications capabilities, comprehensive mitigation plans and creating a drive-thru testing facility.

“We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly impacted our minority communities including American Indians. The Trump administration recognizes that these communities, including tribes, need resources to fight back,” said Azar.

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