Editorial: COVID, flu aren’t hospitals’ only viral threats

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC via AP)
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Armed with the lessons learned from the nearly nine-month struggle to understand and contain this coronavirus pandemic, local hospital officials believe they can handle the confluence of COVID’s resurgence and the upcoming flu season.

Dr. David Sidebottom, director of infectious diseases at Lowell General Hospital, said evidence coming out of Southern Hemisphere countries, which have recently ended their winter flu season, indicates decreased influenza activity during the pandemic.

He said populations exercising better environmental controls for COVID, such as masks, hand washing and social distancing, have likely contributed to this result.

But Sidebottom cautions against reading too much into this encouraging development. He said Americans can’t assume it will be the same here, and everyone who can should get a flu shot.

Hospital physicians, staff and administration have been preparing for months to fight this dual threat. At LGH, that includes weekly meetings with doctors and nurses, in addition to other hospitals in the Wellforce system and with state officials, to ensure that every hospital has a sufficient inventory of personal protective and medical equipment, antivirals and other medications, and has mapped out plans for sustained staffing and surge capacity.

Sidebottom said he expects the next phase of the pandemic likely will produce a more prolonged increase in cases, without generating the peak numbers experienced in the spring. He said studies are also showing that COVID death rates are significantly lower now, thanks to the experience gained in caring for so many coronavirus patients.

“We are in this together,” Jody White, president and CEO of LGH and Circle Health, told the newspaper. “We’ve learned an awful lot along the way since the initial introduction of COVID-19 into the U.S. population. It’s going to help us an awful lot as we experience perhaps a small uptick in folks that test positive for the COVID virus,” added White, who’s also chair of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.

Unfortunately, the public-health complexities of this coronavirus aren’t the only challenges our medical centers face.

Massachusetts hospitals have recently received guidance from the federal government about how to contend with another COVID-19 related threat —  ransomware attacks by cybercriminals.

Law enforcement and cybersecurity agencies warned last week of “an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to U. S. hospitals and health-care providers.”

The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association said its members around the state are now actively protecting their information systems by following detailed guidance issued from federal officials.

A warning from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that cybercriminals are seeking to “infect systems with Ryuk ransomware for financial gain,” and that dealing with ransomware, data theft and service disruption “will be particularly challenging for organizations within the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Associated Press reported that cybercriminals behind the attacks “use a strain of ransomware known as Ryuk, which infiltrates a hospital’s data system through a network of zombie computers called Trickbot, which Microsoft began trying to counter earlier in October.”

According to the AP, these attacks “hobbled” five hospitals in the United States last week.

From the end of February through late March, as the pandemic really ramped up in the Northeast, COVID-19-related phishing attacks increased 667%, cybersecurity company Barracuda found.

Municipalities and school systems have already dealt with these cyber attacks, but threatening to take hospital systems’ offline in the midst of a pandemic constitutes an all-time low, even for these morally deficient individuals.

We can only hope that the feds’ anti-virus arsenal proves sufficient to keep hospitals immune from potentially debilitating ransomware threats.