In a trend that is alarming medical providers, adults fearing contact with COVID-19 are staying at home instead of going to hospital emergency rooms when they have serious symptoms of life-threatening conditions such as heart attack and stroke.
Doctors say the resulting delays in treatment are causing complications and long-term health problems such as irreversible brain and heart damage, disability, amputation and fatalities.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the number of patients visiting emergency rooms nationwide has dropped by 40 to 50 percent, says William Jaquis, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Aventura, Fla., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
"We are afraid that patients could potentially die at home,” Jaquis warns.
Older adults are especially at risk because they are more likely to have cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic medical conditions that make putting off emergency care especially risky, doctors say.
Dale Criner, M.D., an emergency room physician in Memphis, Tenn., says paramedics there are reporting an increase in the number of cardiac calls they've responded to where the patient died before they arrived.
"When they talk to the family, it turns out the patient had chest pain or shortness of breath for a few days but was too afraid to come to the hospital,” he says. “It's heartbreaking."
Getting to the hospital quickly is critical for patients suffering heart attacks or strokes, when heart and brain cells can die by the minute. Other serious conditions — such as acute appendicitis and infections — can also cause long-lasting damage if treatment is delayed.
Virus fears are top, but not only, motivation to stay home
It's not surprising that people are reluctant to go to the ER, given news stories of hospitals overwhelmed with coronavirus cases and deaths, as well as those preparing for an upcoming surge.