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Physicians are worried that people with major health issues are avoiding hospitals. Getty Images
  • Since the COVID-19 crisis, hospitals have seen a major decline in the number of heart attack patients.
  • A recent Twitter poll of cardiologists found that nearly half of respondents have seen between 40 and 60 percent fewer cardiac patients at their hospitals in recent weeks.
  • People experiencing serious symptoms, like chest pain, shortness of breath, numbness in one side of the body, or severe headache, should seek medical attention immediately.

What should you do if you have sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, or other heart attack symptoms?

Before the pandemic, the answer was a no-brainer: Get to the emergency room. But now, more people may be toughing it out at home, fearing a trip to the hospital could expose them to the new coronavirus.

Aside from COVID-19 patients, hospitals have become “eerily quiet,” according to emergency physicians. And the nosedive in the rates of heart attack patients has doctors worried that people aren’t getting the care they need.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

On the national level, the rate of heart attacks is fairly predictable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that someone experiences a heart attack every 40 seconds. Hospitals prepare accordingly for the average rate of cases in their area.

Since the COVID-19 crisis, though, hospitals have seen a major decline in the number of heart attack patients.

“You hear doctors saying, ‘Where are all the heart attacks?’ It’s concerning to us. We can only imagine that there are people still having these medical problems and not seeking care,” said Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, emergency physician, clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine, and a national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

The decline of heart attack patients during the pandemic varies from hospital to hospital.

While not scientific, a recent Twitter poll of cardiologists found that nearly half of respondents have seen between 40 and 60 percent fewer cardiac patients at their hospitals in recent weeks, with another 22 percent of doctors seeing a drop of more than 60 percent.

Dr. Abdulla Kudrath, an emergency physician, has noticed a nearly 50 percent drop in heart attack patients at his freestanding emergency department, Angleton ER, as well as the four other emergency rooms he manages, during the pandemic.

What’s more, those who do come in have often waited until symptoms have become severe, he says.

“Some things can be prevented and controlled, but any time delayed on a stroke or heart attack can be costly to someone’s health,” Kudrath said.

While there are a few theories to explain the drop in heart attack patients, many doctors believe people see hospitals as a hotbed for the new coronavirus, so they’re trying to avoid them as much as possible.

“People are afraid of COVID. They’d rather delay care for something that might not be serious than be faced with the real risk of catching COVID in the hospital,” Gillespie said.

Some patients are also concerned that hospitals are too overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients to treat other issues, adds Dr. Gurpreet Sandhu, chair of the division of interventional cardiology at the Mayo Clinic and director of the Mayo Clinic Cardiac Cath Lab.

“There’s a perception that other medical services may not be available right now, and we would like to reassure everyone that heart attack care systems are operational, even under the current situation,” he said.

The fear of contracting something at the hospital isn’t unfounded. The CDC estimates 1 in 31 hospital patients experience at least one healthcare-associated infection on any given day.

The good news is rates of healthcare-associated infections have been on the decline in recent years. Hospitals are taking a range of new precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside their facilities.

“Some hospitals are creating COVID wards and non-COVID wards to create a firewall and reduce transfer back and forth of people and equipment,” Gillespie said. “They’re also saying no visitors, which is really hard, but every family member who comes is one more person who could bring COVID into the hospital or take it out into the community.”

Many facilities have also put out gloves and masks for patients to wear as soon as they walk in, adds Kudrath.

“Our doors are cleaned after every person leaves, and our staff is also wearing gloves and masks,” he said. “The last thing I’d ever want is for someone to get sick from my facility, so we have strict protocols.”

While there’s always a potential of being exposed to germs in the hospital, the health risks of delaying care for something as serious as a heart attack or stroke could be much more severe.

People experiencing serious symptoms, like chest pain, shortness of breath, numbness in one side of the body, or severe headache, should seek medical attention immediately.

Tell the triage nurse at the hospital exactly what’s going on so they can get you to the appropriate place, Kudrath says.

“You can call the emergency room ahead of time to ask questions about how they’re going to protect you from being exposed to COVID-19,” he said.

You can also leverage telemedicine services through your primary care physician, local emergency department, or health insurer for less serious concerns, if you’re trying to avoid the hospital.

The most important thing is to make sure you’re getting advice from a qualified medical professional. Don’t rely on the internet to self-diagnose and treat an issue.

“You shouldn’t be making decisions in isolation just because you’re afraid of the risk of COVID right now,” Gillespie said.

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