Medical Care and Return to Work in the Age of COVID: Experts Weigh In on What Comes Next

Medical experts break down what hospitals have learned since the onset of the pandemic, and what that means for the anticipated second wave.
By: | October 16, 2020

On September 24, the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) president and CEO John Ruser led a webinar on the delivery of medical care and return to work in the COVID-19 era.


Ruser was joined by WCRI senior research fellow Dr. Randy Lea, who is an orthopedic surgeon and hospital chief medical officer in Columbus, OH, and infectious disease expert Dr. Mark Herbert.

Among the topics discussed were changes in the delivery of care and hospital services as a result of COVID-19, impacts on workers’ compensation patients’ access to medical care, what tests are available, and return-to-work strategies and protocols for recovered COVID-19 patients.

Here’s what they had to say.

Responding to a Pandemic

According to Lea, there have been three phases of pandemic response in health care delivery and hospital services.

The initial, acute phase was marked by considerable uncertainty. “It wasn’t clear whether we were going to have a true pandemic here,” said Lea, citing, “a number of knowledge gaps about the virus, its treatment and prevention.”

Amid concern that America’s health care system could be overwhelmed, health providers moved aggressively.

“We didn’t know whether we were going to be overwhelmed, like what we saw in other countries,” said Lea. “So what most hospitals did was begin to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”

Dr. Randy Lea, senior research fellow, WCRI; orthopedic surgeon

This involved treating COVID and not much of anything else, “except the absolute half to-dos, like heart attacks, things of that nature,” segregating COVID patients, delaying procedures like joint replacements, hernia repairs and plastic surgery, and minimizing face-to-face visits in favor of telemedicine.

“We had to keep beds available for the sickest patients, and we even had some shortages with reagents, because some of the testing materials were lacking and supply chain necessities,” said Lea.

In addition to the potential for an overwhelming volume of patients, there were concerns about health care workers contracting the disease and attrition due to burnout, although that has proven to be minimal.

Here for the Long Haul

The second phase involved the transition to recognizing COVID as a longer-term issue.

Testing and scheduling protocols were put in place that allowed the system to safely catch up with a backlog of elective cases. Expanded office hours and telemedicine were used to help patients with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart troubles, diabetes, who had been putting off treatment due to the pandemic.

We are now in what Lea calls the, “Living with COVID Phase,” acknowledging that the disease is here to stay and must be treated alongside all the normal health care concerns.

“We’re still cohorting, still using personal protective equipment, and our PPE and supplies are better,” said Lea. New routines enable facilities “to flex our beds, to expand and contract as the number of cases come in.”

What About Workers’ Comp?

The impact on care for workers’ comp patients has been harder to pin down.

Dr. Mark Herbert, infectious disease expert

“It’s been different in different places, and providers have been experiencing different things,” said Lea, who has seen minor disruptions and a decrease in WC cases, possibly due to fewer workers working and fewer injuries occurring, as well as a deferral of treatment for more minor injuries.

“There’s been a decrease in pre-placement/post-offer testing, because hiring has gone down,” Lea added.

Availability of services has also been a factor. “The larger imaging centers and physical therapy centers, both of which are utilized highly in worker’s comp, a lot of those were closed,” said Lea.

Lea voiced concerns that such disruptions of occupational and other therapies can cause patients to lose ground, requiring addition treatment.

According to Herbert, ambulatory or out-patient sites have also changed procedures. “The triaging of patients has evolved a lot over the last six months,” he said.

As with hospitals, entrances and exits were minimized to ensure a uni-directional flow of people. Vendor visits were suspended; visitors accompanying patients were limited; and patients were questioned about symptoms, temperature-checked and required to wear masks.

Testing Is Becoming Faster, Helping Deliver Care

With faster and more widely available testing, results can be obtained before patients enter facilities. Elective procedures have resumed and now approach normal levels.

Herbert’s organization uses molecular tests, which involve a long swab inserted through the nasal passage into the posterior pharynx. This procedure is considered more invasive and takes longer to process, but it is more accurate than the quicker and less invasive antigen tests.

“When the outbreak initially started, we had to send all of our tests to our reference laboratory, which [took] four to ten days to get a test result,” said Herbert. “Once all the reagents became more widely available for the rapid test, we were able to do these tests very quickly in house, in the course of hours, certainly in less than a day.”


Another shortage of reagents during the summer did cause a brief return to sending out samples and the accompanying delays.

Positive Results with Other Treatments 

“The prognosis of severely ill patients has improved somewhat,” Herbert said, citing improvements in how oxygen and ventilators are utilized, as well as several treatments that have come to the fore.

Here are a handful of such treatments:

  • Corticosteroids decrease the severity and duration of symptoms.
  • Remdesivir, an IV antiviral drug, has been used to interrupt the virus’s reproduction and is most helpful for patients with moderate symptoms.
  • Convalescent plasma is drawn from individuals who have recovered from COVID infection and may contain antibodies, although information on its efficacy is still mostly anecdotal.
  • Tocilizumab, an immune system-suppressing drug used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, is thought to help prevent the immune system over-reaction that causes much of the worst effects of COVID.

Prepping for Flu Season

Currently, facilities are preparing to transition to new procedures as flu season arrives, including testing patients with COVID-like symptoms before their visit, perhaps outdoors in the parking lot.

John Ruser, president and CEO, WCRI

“The symptoms of respiratory infections like influenza and COVID are very similar,” said Herbert. “They cause fever, they cause cough, they cause muscle aches and headaches.”

The differences are subtle and inconsistent. COVID patients are more likely to have shortness of breath and can involve gastrointestinal symptoms, whereas flu is more likely to include achiness and a cough.

Herbert advises monitoring temperature and other symptoms. “If they’re getting worse in 24- to 48-hours instead of getting better, they should contact their health care provider.”

Returning to Work After Illness

Employers should also have protocols in place for employees returning to work after COVID, considering both infectiousness and functional concerns.


According to the CDC, patients infected for more than 10 days whose symptoms are improving are probably not shedding live virus anymore, so Herbert advises against returning to work until those 10 days have passed since onset, or their first positive test, and symptoms have been improving for three days, with no fever and no fever medication like acetaminophen, aspirin, etc.

Some workplaces, such as health care, may require a negative test, as well.

Herbert also recommends functional assessments and appropriate operational accommodations for those weakened or otherwise impaired during potentially long recoveries.

The WCRI webinar concluded with a brief overview of broader public health concerns, including the disproportionate impact of COVID on African American and Hispanic communities, the long-term impact on jobs due to quarantines, and how the unfortunately widespread disregard of public health recommendations has hindered efforts to slow the spread of the disease. &

Jon McGoran is a magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Scenario

The Betrayal of Elizabeth

In this Risk Scenario, Risk & Insurance explores what might happen in the event a telemedicine or similar home health visit violates a patient's privacy. What consequences await when a young girl's tele visit goes viral?
By: | October 12, 2020
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.


Elizabeth Cunningham seemingly had it all. The daughter of two well-established professionals — her father was a personal injury attorney, her mother, also an attorney, had her own estate planning practice — she grew up in a house in Maryland horse country with lots of love and the financial security that can iron out at least some of life’s problems.

Tall, good-looking and talented, Elizabeth was moving through her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania in seemingly good order; check that, very good order, by all appearances.

Her pre-med grades were outstanding. Despite the heavy load of her course work, she’d even managed to place in the Penn Relays in the mile, in the spring of her sophomore season, in May of 2019.

But the winter of 2019/2020 brought challenges, challenges that festered below the surface, known only to her and a couple of close friends.

First came betrayal at the hands of her boyfriend, Tom, right around Thanksgiving. She saw a message pop up on his phone from Rebecca, a young woman she thought was their friend. As it turned out, Rebecca and Tom had been intimate together, and both seemed game to do it again.

Reeling, her holiday mood shattered and her relationship with Tom fractured, Elizabeth was beset by deep feelings of anxiety. As the winter gray became more dense and forbidding, the anxiety grew.

Fed up, she broke up with Tom just after Christmas. What looked like a promising start to 2020 now didn’t feel as joyous.

Right around the end of the year, she plucked a copy of her father’s New York Times from the table in his study. A budding physician, her eyes were drawn to a piece about an outbreak of a highly contagious virus in Wuhan, China.

“Sounds dreadful,” she said to herself.

Within three months, anxiety gnawed at Elizabeth daily as she sat cloistered in her family’s house in Bel Air, Maryland.

It didn’t help matters that her brother, Billy, a high school senior and a constant thorn in her side, was cloistered with her.

She felt like she was suffocating.

One night in early May, feeling shutdown and unable to bring herself to tell her parents about her true condition, Elizabeth reached out to her family physician for help.

Dr. Johnson had been Elizabeth’s doctor for a number of years and, being from a small town, Elizabeth had grown up and gone to school with Dr. Johnson’s son Evan. In fact, back in high school, Evan had asked Elizabeth out once. Not interested, Elizabeth had declined Evan’s advances and did not give this a second thought.

Dr. Johnson’s practice had recently been acquired by a Virginia-based hospital system, Medwell, so when Elizabeth called the office, she was first patched through to Medwell’s receptionist/scheduling service. Within 30 minutes, an online Telehealth consult had been arranged for her to speak directly with Dr. Johnson.

Due to the pandemic, Dr. Johnson called from the office in her home. The doctor was kind. She was practiced.

“So can you tell me what’s going on?” she said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. She tried to fight what was happening. But she could not. Tears started streaming down her face.

“It’s just… It’s just…” she managed to stammer.

The doctor waited patiently. “It’s okay,” she said. “Just take your time.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “It’s like I can’t manage my own mind anymore. It’s nonstop. It won’t turn off…”

More tears streamed down her face.

Patiently, with compassion, the doctor walked Elizabeth through what she might be experiencing. The doctor recommended a follow-up with Medwell’s psychology department.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, some semblance of relief passing through her.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Johnson, her office door had not been completely closed. During the telehealth call, Evan stopped by his mother’s office to ask her a question. Before knocking he overheard Elizabeth talking and decided to listen in.


As Elizabeth was finding the courage to open up to Dr. Johnson about her psychological condition, Evan was recording her with his smartphone through a crack in the doorway.

Spurred by who knows what — his attraction to her, his irritation at being rejected, the idleness of the COVID quarantine — it really didn’t matter. Evan posted his recording of Elizabeth to his Instagram feed.

#CantManageMyMind, #CrazyGirl, #HelpMeDoctorImBeautiful is just some of what followed.

Elizabeth and Evan were both well-liked and very well connected on social media. The posts, shares and reactions that followed Evan’s digital betrayal numbered in the hundreds. Each one of them a knife into the already troubled soul of Elizabeth Cunningham.

By noon of the following day, her well-connected father unleashed the dogs of war.

Rand Davis, the risk manager for the Medwell Health System, a 15-hospital health care company based in Alexandria, Virginia was just finishing lunch when he got a call from the company’s general counsel, Emily Vittorio.

“Yes?” Rand said. He and Emily were accustomed to being quick and blunt with each other. They didn’t have time for much else.

“I just picked up a notice of intent to sue from a personal injury attorney in Bel Air, Maryland. It seems his daughter was in a teleconference with one of our docs. She was experiencing anxiety, the daughter that is. The doctor’s son recorded the call and posted it to social media.”

“Great. Thanks, kid,” Rand said.

“His attorneys want to initiate a discovery dialogue on Monday,” Emily said.

It was Thursday. Rand’s dreams of slipping onto his fishing boat over the weekend evaporated, just like that. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up to the heavens.

Wasn’t it enough that he and the other members of the C-suite fought tooth and nail to keep thousands of people safe and treat them during the COVID-crisis?

He’d watched the explosion in the use of telemedicine with a mixture of awe and alarm. On the one hand, they were saving lives. On the other hand, they were opening themselves to exposures under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. He just knew it.

He and his colleagues tried to do the right thing. But what they were doing, overwhelmed as they were, was simply not enough.


Within the space of two weeks, the torture suffered by Elizabeth Cunningham grew into a class action against Medwell.

In addition to the violation of her privacy, the investigation by Mr. Cunningham’s attorneys revealed the following:

Medwell’s telemedicine component, as needed and well-intended as it was, lacked a viable informed consent protocol.

The consultation with Elizabeth, and as it turned out, hundreds of additional patients in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, violated telemedicine regulations in all three states.

Numerous practitioners in the system took part in teleconferences with patients in states in which they were not credentialed to provide that service.

Even if Evan hadn’t cracked open Dr. Johnson’s door and surreptitiously recorded her conversation with Elizabeth, the Medwell telehealth system was found to be insecure — yet another violation of HIPAA.

The amount sought in the class action was $100 million. In an era of social inflation, with jury awards that were once unthinkable becoming commonplace, Medwell was standing squarely in the crosshairs of a liability jury decision that was going to devour entire towers of its insurance program.

Adding another layer of certain pain to the equation was that the case would be heard in Baltimore, a jurisdiction where plaintiffs’ attorneys tended to dance out of courtrooms with millions in their pockets.

That fall, Rand sat with his broker on a call with a specialty insurer, talking about renewals of the group’s general liability, cyber and professional liability programs.

“Yeah, we were kind of hoping to keep the increases on all three at less than 25%,” the broker said breezily.

There was a long silence from the underwriters at the other end of the phone.

“To be honest, we’re borderline about being able to offer you any cover at all,” one of the lead underwriters said.

Rand just sat silently and waited for another shoe to drop.

“Well, what can you do?” the broker said, with hope draining from his voice.

The conversation that followed would propel Rand and his broker on the difficult, next to impossible path of trying to find coverage, with general liability underwriters in full retreat, professional liability underwriters looking for double digit increases and cyber underwriters asking very pointed questions about the health system’s risk management.

Elizabeth, a strong young woman with a good support network, would eventually recover from the damage done to her.

Medwell’s relationships with the insurance markets looked like it almost never would. &


Risk & Insurance® partnered with Allied World to produce this scenario. Below are Allied World’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.®.

The use of telehealth has exponentially accelerated with the advent of COVID-19. Few health care providers were prepared for this shift. Health care organizations should confirm that Telehealth coverage is included in their Medical Professional, General Liability and Cyber policies, and to what extent. Concerns around Telehealth focus on HIPAA compliance and the internal policies in place to meet the federal and state standards and best practices for privacy and quality care. As states open businesses and the crisis abates, will pre-COVID-19 telehealth policies and regulations once again be enforced?

Risk Management Considerations:

The same ethical and standard of care issues around caring for patients face-to-face in an office apply in telehealth settings:

  • maintain a strong patient-physician relationship;
  • protect patient privacy; and
  • seek the best possible outcome.

Telehealth can create challenges around “informed consent.” It is critical to inform patients of the potential benefits and risks of telehealth (including privacy and security), ensure the use of HIPAA compliant platforms and make sure there is a good level of understanding of the scope of telehealth. Providers must be aware of the regulatory and licensure requirements in the state where the patient is located, as well as those of the state in which they are licensed.

A professional and private environment should be maintained for patient privacy and confidentiality. Best practices must be in place and followed. Medical professionals who engage in telehealth should be fully trained in operating the technology. Patients must also be instructed in its use and provided instructions on what to do if there are technical difficulties.

This case study is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be a summary of, and does not in any way vary, the actual coverage available to a policyholder under any insurance policy. Actual coverage for specific claims will be determined by the actual policy language and will be based on the specific facts and circumstances of the claim. Consult your insurance advisors or legal counsel for guidance on your organization’s policies and coverage matters and other issues specific to your organization.

This information is provided as a general overview for agents and brokers. Coverage will be underwritten by an insurance subsidiary of Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd, a Fairfax company (“Allied World”). Such subsidiaries currently carry an A.M. Best rating of “A” (Excellent), a Moody’s rating of “A3” (Good) and a Standard & Poor’s rating of “A-” (Strong), as applicable. Coverage is offered only through licensed agents and brokers. Actual coverage may vary and is subject to policy language as issued. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions. Risk management services are provided or arranged through AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World. © 2020 Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]