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Over the last six months, the local health care community has learned big lessons in a big hurry to protect public health during the coronavirus pandemic — but some challenges are just starting, said Rae Bond, the CEO of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.

"Our biggest challenge is that until we have a vaccine, we're going to have to continue to deal with COVID," said Bond, one of three experts who spoke on a panel Wednesday for the annual Champions of Health Care recognition event hosted by the Times Free Press. The recognition is normally an in-person luncheon, but shifted to an online format this year.

"I think everybody has a little bit of COVID fatigue," Bond said. "We're sociable creatures, and most people have had a long period of isolation."

(Read more: Meet the 2020 Champions of Health Care in the Chattanooga area.)

It's still essential to practice simple measures, including wearing a mask, hand-washing and social distancing, but the politicization of the virus has complicated what should be a simple response, Bond added.

"Viruses don't have a political affiliation, but it has become something of a political issue," she said. "We need to continue to do some really basic stuff that gets kind of tiring over time."

Dr. Andrea Willis, chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said these simple measures have been cast as a personal choice by some people, but that they are inherently in the public interest.

"It's really about public health, so what we do not only impacts us, but it impacts our family, our friends, our community at large," she said. "It's about us doing everything we can do to protect each other. This is a community threat."

More than 290 people have died from COVID-19 in the Chattanooga region since the health care pandemic started six months ago. On Friday, the state reported 8,594 total cases in Hamilton County and 714 active cases.

More Info

Watch the Champions of Health Care expert panel and awards recognition at timesfreepress.com/champions.

Read profile of the winners of Champions of Health Care at chattanoogaedge.com.

Join the Times Free Press “Weekly Checkup” Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/chatthealth.

Subscribe to the “Weekly Checkup” newsletter at timesfreepress.com/newsletters.

(Read more: New COVID-19 guidance from CDC leads to huge drop in active cases in Hamilton County.)

The looming flu season means additional challenges, as the usual seasonal illnesses collide with the pandemic, Dr. Willis said.

"The flu season can complicate this whole picture," she said. "Not only are we looking at two illnesses being present at the same time, we have to look at the resources that are available."

Inequities in access to health care, and resources for people who may suffer unknown, long-term effects from COVID-19, are both ongoing and future challenges, said Dr. Kelly Arnold, founder and clinical director of Clinica Medicos.

"Where are those gaps being filled in for people who have survived this but survival doesn't necessarily mean a clear path?" Dr. Arnold said.

However, the fast formation of partnerships across competitive lines and between nonprofit and for-profit organizations throughout the crisis has been encouraging, she added.

"The lesson learned is that when something else arises, we know what the potential is, in spite of health care system free market forces, to solve it," she said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Dr. Kelly Arnold in her Clinica Medicos office on East 23rd Street.
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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Dr. Andrea Willis, the chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
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