I do not know anyone who put off gathering their day-to-day essentials during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, quite the opposite.  People streamed into grocery stores and hardware stores to prepare for all manner of contingencies. Friends and neighbors everywhere diligently prepared for the future by braving crowds in order to feel more secure.

It’s the same for the human body — maintaining routine office visits and screenings prepares you for a healthy future.

However, put off health care long enough — especially routine screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies that can detect diseases early when they are still treatable — and you put your health at risk.

Unfortunately, health care providers at Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital are seeing patients who have done just that. Their fear of the virus has kept them from seeking routine health care, especially during the early days of the pandemic when so little was known about COVID-19.

Now that they are finally coming back to their doctor’s offices, some are being diagnosed with advanced stages of diseases that, if discovered earlier, would have been far less consequential. These patients did not catch COVID-19, but they are, nevertheless, victims of the pandemic, and their stories serve as a cautionary tale: even during a pandemic, going to your doctor is safe, and staying away will eventually put you at risk.

In fact, I believe going to your doctor’s office is safer than ever.

The additional safety precautions we put in place during the pandemic proved extremely effective at protecting our team members and patients.

We screen every person who works at Pen Bay and Waldo County General Hospital, including independent contractors and vendors, for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter our facilities. At work, we wear face masks and other personal protective equipment. We rearranged waiting areas, exam rooms and work spaces to allow social distancing. We screen all patients for COVID-19 symptoms and require them to wear face masks during their visit. Everyone is encouraged to use hand sanitizer frequently.

While intended to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, these precautions made our facilities safer in other ways. For example, face masks also dramatically reduce the transmission of the flu and common cold, and frequent use of hand sanitizer reduces contact with the viruses and bacteria that may lead to gastrointestinal illnesses.

This is supported by data. Influenza infections took a nose dive during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the adoption of COVID-19 prevention measures in spring 2020 coincided with a huge drop in positive flu tests.

It doesn’t seem that far a leap to say Pen Bay and Waldo County General Hospital are safer than ever and, conversely, staying away is more dangerous than ever.

It would be easy to focus on the most dramatic stories — returning patients with an advanced cancer that, if caught a year ago during a colonoscopy or mammogram, would have required only routine treatment. The patient who, early in the pandemic, declined to seek treatment for minor chest pains only to discover she managed to survive a heart attack — and now must live with a weaker, thinner heart wall that is more prone to rupturing.

We have seen these or similar cases at Pen Bay and Waldo County General Hospital and know how hard it has been for patients and their families to hear the devastating news.

However, I want to focus on two decidedly undramatic but still dangerous outcomes of deferring care and routine screenings during the pandemic.

Medical Director Heather Ward of Primary Care, a family physician at Waldo County Family Medicine in Belfast, reports that many of her patients with diabetes or high blood pressure who stayed away during the peak of the pandemic returned to her office with elevated readings. The stress of the pandemic, isolation and decreased monitoring all contributed.

In some cases, these patients weren’t completely without medical attention during the pandemic. They continued to seek care via telehealth, meeting with providers over a secure connection to their smartphone, tablet or laptop. Telehealth is one of the great leaps the pandemic pushed us to take, and it served the needs of many patients.

However, it has limitations. We cannot take a patient’s blood pressure over the telephone or draw blood for testing. Filtered by pixels, we also struggle to make eye contact that a care provider makes with a patient during an office visit.

This is critical because care providers often serve not just as a source of medical knowledge, but also as a patient’s health care conscience. In short, when patients know they will see their doctor in person, they tend to take better care of themselves.

Now more than ever, Pen Bay and Waldo County General Hospital are committed to care.  In the upcoming months, we will welcome new providers, introduce new services and continue to grow and meet community needs.

After more than a year of living in pandemic conditions, it is time for all of us to take better care of ourselves. This includes getting the COVID-19 vaccine, something nearly every physician at Pen Bay and Waldo County General Hospital has done and recommends for all patients. It also includes seeing a primary care provider face-to-face and resuming routine screenings such as mammographies and colonoscopies.

These all are as important as stocking up at the grocery store.