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As we sit here in December 2021 COVID is still active and cases appear to be climbing in certain pockets of the United States. In early 2020, when the pandemic began, few of us ever thought that we would be dealing with this pandemic at Christmas of 2020, let alone Christmas of 2021 and beyond. There are many Christmas gifts related to COVID that will be discussed in this article, some good gifts, and some you would like to return if you could. Some gifts listed are good from one perspective and not from another, this article is not to take a side, but rather to talk about some topics. COVID has brought some of the worst financial issues in our generation but has also created some good for our country as well. Today most would say our country is more divided than it has ever been and many blame that on the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID gifts are often valued in the eye of the beholder and have a lot to do with the perspective of the person opening them. As it is often said, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

Gift One

A new variant, Omicron, was recently defined and according to The World Health Organization (WHO) was declared to be “of concern”. This variant has a large number of mutations included in it and appears to suggest an increased reinfection risk.[1] As a health professional, you never like to hear about a new variant when talking about a pandemic, but there is some hidden value in the Omicron variant. We have heard that the new variant is more infectious, but it also appears to be less severe than other variants. We may see more people get it, but there should be fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

A new variant is not the gift we were all hoping for, but it could have been much worse so we should all be thankful that it does not appear to be as bad as it could have been.

Gift Two

Vaccinations appear to still be quite effective against new variants. Whenever there is a mutation in a virus there are questions about whether the vaccines will be effective. The gift this holiday season is that the vaccines that have been approved appear to still be effective. Vaccines for many are not a gift at all, but rather a sore subject and a cause for division. This gift is a gift that I believe each person should open with care and decide for themselves if it is one that they want to open and feel good about.

This is a good gift for all as the better the vaccine performs, the better it is for everyone vaccinated and not. Some may not feel comfortable taking this gift and we all need to respect a person’s choice.

Gift Three

A gift of new Mask Mandates is being given out across much of the United States[2]. In California, they enacted an indoor mask mandate for the next month to help stop the spread of the virus. Many other states/cities have enacted similar mandates as California. No one likes to be forced to give a give or take a gift but when thinking about mask mandates in light of Christmas I believe it is best for us all to think about those around us and try to respect and honor all.

A Mask mandate can be a hassle, but in terms of an easy way to help others, it is not a bad gift to give to others. Just like no one really likes Aunt Mildred’s fruit salad, none of us really love wearing masks, but will for the sake of ourselves and others.

Gift Four

This Christmas season we all have better access to our doctors because of the technological advances made during this pandemic.

Telemedicine availability and effectiveness is a great gift for all. Normally Christmas is a stressful time and the last thing that people have time for is a doctor’s appointment. This Christmas season we all have better access to our doctors because of the technological advances made during this pandemic. In April 2020 telemedicine visits accounted for 13% of all claim lines, as of September 2021 that is much lower as they now account for about 4.4% of all claim lines[3]. Before the pandemic telemedicine visits account for around 0.24% of the claim lines.

This was an unexpected gift that is one that we should all be excited about and use as often as possible.

Gift Five

Mental Health Utilization is back to normal levels and in many cases higher than before the pandemic. This is a two-sided gift as I believe that many ignored mental health issues early in the pandemic and now are getting the healthcare that they require. I am not blind to the fact that the pandemic most likely caused some increased utilization because of isolation, financial stress, fear and anxiety, but the fact that people are now seeking care is good. To date, there have been over 800,000 deaths in the US since the start of the pandemic[4] this will further exasperate the mental health issues related to the pandemic as many people will be mourning the loss of loved ones during the Christmas season.

This gift is hard for all, many people are hurting and in need of help. People have better access to care now, especially because of telehealth, but even that gift is sad as we all wish no one required this care. I hope and pray that this gift turns into better mental health for all.

Gift Six

Long-term COVID issues persist for many people. Some long-term COVID things are great, like many are still able to work from home and have more quality time with their families, other issues are not great as there are longer-term medical issues. There is nothing I enjoy more about Christmas than sitting around the fireplace with my family, watching a Christmas movie while smelling all the good food cooking and the aroma of the freshly cut tree in the room. This year I will not be able to do many of those things due to COVID. COVID is making it harder for families to travel, and on top of that due to COVID I still do not have a sense of smell almost a year following my own positive COVID diagnosis.

The gift of the extended symptoms is not a gift I would want to give my enemies, smell is a small thing compared to some of the long-haul symptoms some are dealing with. COVID has given some good long-term changes that we should be thankful for in the midst of the bad ones.

Gift Seven

Actuaries are going to be full of things to talk about at the Christmas table as many are working on projecting what the next year’s claims costs will look like. This guessing game is a puzzle that has been given to us all this Christmas season. A few months ago, it looked like COVID was done, until it was not. A few new variants and the question of suppressed utilization is still front and center affecting what 2022 and beyond could look like. I personally am a believer from what I have seen with clients and read that much of the suppressed utilization is behind us. This thought needs to be taken with a grain of salt as many including myself thought this pandemic was going to only last a few months when we started lockdowns in March of 2020.

It is always a gift to have something to talk about, but I believe that this is a gift that is going to keep on giving for many months as we really do not know what the future is going to look like.

Gift Eight

This is not a gift that has been given to us, but rather a gift that we should give this holiday season. I encourage us all to thank the first responders, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals for all that they have done throughout this pandemic. Many health professionals are dealing with trauma, burnout, and grief[5] and would appreciate a “thank you” for all they have done. We need to care for our Doctors as they are the ones that care for us. Due to many shifts in utilization, I know many medical professionals have been negatively affected in health and financially through this pandemic, but they still showed up every day to work, and deserve a gift of thanks from us all.

A simple “Thank You” to a medical professional is a gift that is well deserved.

At the end of the day, we all need to be thankful for the good and the bad times, the ups and downs and the things in between. The pandemic has been hard on us all, but believe it or not, there are also bright spots in the pandemic that have brought us together as a nation. Sir Winston Churchill is credited with first saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. He said this in the 1940s before heading into World War II. Wars and Pandemics are both very hard on a country, but even after losses of life and huge expense there are always things that we can learn from and be better in the future.

[1] Covid: New variant classed ‘of concern’ and named Omicron – BBC News

[2] California orders statewide mask mandate amid rise in COVID – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)

[3] September 2021 Telehealth

[4] U.S. COVID-19 deaths reach 800,000 as Delta ravaged in 2021 | Reuters

[5] Doctor Burnout Is Affecting Patients: Survey (webmd.com)

About the Author

Joshua W. Axene, FSA, FCA, MAAA, is a Partner and Consulting Actuary at Axene Health Partners, LLC and is based in AHP’s Temecula, CA office.