The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that some people may be putting off getting emergency care for serious health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic – and fewer visits for critical conditions could result in complications or even death.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the total number of visits to hospital emergency departments across the United States for conditions other than Covid-19 was 42% lower than during this same time last year, according to a new CDC report.
The new research, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Wednesday, found that emergency department visits drastically fell from about 2.1 million visits per week between March 31 and April 27 last year to 1.2 million between March 29 and April 25 this year.
The “steepest decreases” were among children 14 and younger, women and girls, and people living in the Northeast region of the country, CDC researchers noted in the report. For instance, in 2019, 12% of all emergency department visits were in children ages 10 and younger, compared with 6% during that same time period this year while experiencing the pandemic.
Yet overall, “the proportion of infectious disease-related visits was four times higher during the early pandemic period,” according to the report.
The report included data from the CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program on emergency department visits, from January 2019 through May 2020, in a subset of hospitals across 47 states.
“During an early 4-week interval in the COVID-19 pandemic, ED visits were substantially lower than during the same 4-week period during the previous year; these decreases were especially pronounced for children and females and in the Northeast,” CDC researchers wrote in the report.
“In addition to diagnoses associated with lower respiratory disease, pneumonia, and difficulty breathing, the number and ratio of visits (early pandemic period versus comparison period) for cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation increased. The number of visits for conditions including nonspecific chest pain and acute myocardial infarction decreased, suggesting that some persons could be delaying care for conditions that might result in additional mortality if left untreated.”
In the new report, CDC recommended for people to keep using virtual doctor’s visits and triage help lines during the pandemic, but not to hesitate seeking care for serious conditions, such as heart attack.
The research had some limitations, including that the number of hospitals reporting to National Syndromic Surveillance Program change over time; the data do not capture all US hospitals, just those who reported to the surveillance program; and the data is limited to emergency department visits only, so people who may have sought treatment elsewhere are not captured in the data.
This isn’t the first time that the public has been encouraged to still seek care for non-Covid emergencies during the pandemic. In early May, the American Heart Association urged people to call 911 if they experience any chest pain or heart symptoms, even amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As fewer people call 911 for heart attack or stroke symptoms during the pandemic, unfortunately, their delay in seeking care can lead to long-term health consequences, serious disabilities or death, said Michele Bolles, vice president for quality and health information technology at the American Heart Association and leads the national Get With The Guidelines program.
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“In the case of a stroke, the longer you wait, the more brain damage and brain tissue is lost, and for a person experiencing a heart attack, the same is true – time equals heart muscle – and in those two incidences, time is critical. Every minute counts,” Bolles said.
“What we may see is more patients with heart failure. Patients being diagnosed with heart failure down the road because they have had untreated mild heart attacks and didn’t seek timely treatment during the lockdown,” she said. “And ultimately there are some cases where people will die at home because they didn’t call 911 and didn’t seek proper emergency care.”
Bolles added “the bottom line is to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and stroke and to call 911 as quickly as possible.”