Doctors still doing damage control after pandemic fallout

Max Williams is a Pullman-based doctor operating Apple A Day Family Medicine. (Credit: The Lewiston Tribune)



When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Inland Northwest almost three years ago, Dr. Max Williams started seeing a change in some of his patients that shocked him: people he had treated successfully for years no longer trusted him.

“I actually lost about a half-dozen patients because they thought I was part of the medical establishment problem, especially with COVID,” the Pullman-based doctor said. “It was pretty shocking actually. These patients I had, I had cared for them for years, and sometimes in the hospital had saved their lives on multiple occasions. You weren’t even sure who you were talking to anymore. It was really quite stunning — quite heartbreaking sometimes.”

For years, Williams said, he had provided his patients with evidence-based advice based on available research. But for the first time during the pandemic, health care providers across the country were struggling to convince patients a potentially deadly virus was a real threat — or real at all.

Since then, Williams said his biggest professional challenge has been combating misinformation.

“I always joke with my friends that whenever Kim Kardashian has an opinion on a medical issue, I’m always going to lose,” Williams said. “That’s just the normal thing. But during COVID times, it took that and dialed up to 11.”

Mike Larson, a nurse for Public Health – Idaho North Central District, said that politicization has also negatively affected public health workers’ ability to do their jobs. In the past, Larson said, members of the public were generally happy to cooperate with investigations, such as providing information to track a disease outbreak. That isn’t always the case now.

“People generally would respond real positively to us and our investigations, understanding that it was important for the overall good of the population,” Larson said. “And that changed a little bit with COVID.”

Larson said he worries about the long-term impact of health care being politicized, and what it could mean for how infectious diseases are treated in the future.

“I’m not sure that we can get this genie back into the bottle,” he said. “Once politics have entered into this situation, I’m not sure that we can get them back out. And that worries me.”

The health care field is also still facing burnout, Larson said, despite COVID-19 cases being lower than surges that happened early in the pandemic.

“[Early in the pandemic] we would say, ‘Oh, well, we’re so lucky. Because here, we haven’t experienced [people leaving.]’ It’s one of those things where we shouldn’t be too thankful too soon, because sooner or later, it will catch up with you.

According to a December 2021 Mayo Clinic study, roughly one in five doctors and two in five nurses said they planned to leave the profession within two years.

Although some damage from the pandemic will linger, Larson said he is hopeful that providers and communities at large will be able to rebuild trust — and with it, a sense of collective responsibility for each other.

“I think helping people come back to that understanding of the extension of themselves and their family as their community [is important],” he said. “Just like everything else, that’s all on a pendulum, and I think we’ve hopefully swung about as far toward the individual rights side of that, that we can get. And maybe we’ll come back more to the middle, of understanding that we really, truly, need to help take care of our neighbors.”

To that point, Larson said, he chooses to mask in large groups and stay up to date on vaccinations to protect his community as much as himself. 

Dr. Williams said ever since the beginning of the pandemic, he’s chosen to wear N95 masks everywhere he goes, and switched to working out in a home gym instead of a public one. He’s vaccinated, and avoids places like restaurants and bars when COVID-19 or other virus transmission is high. 

Williams also hasn’t been sick for roughly three years because of those precautions, he said. He thinks about masking, vaccines and other preventative measures like sunscreen.

“I used to play a lot of junior golf. And my mom would slather me up with sunscreen  that’s before it was popular. And I hated it … now, of course, I’m thanking her because I don’t have skin cancer,” Williams said. “So I’m hopeful that eventually these kinds of precautions, whether it’s just wearing a mask during the wintertime or in transit or during high risk transmissions, just becomes kind of commonplace.”

This report is made possible through a partnership between Northwest Public Broadcasting, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.