Emergency heart care during COVID-19: When to call 911 and how hospitals are keeping patients safe

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Cardiac and stroke hospital admissions have dropped significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic — by nearly 40%, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. This may be because many patients, fearing the pandemic, are not seeking life-saving care. When concerns about catching the coronavirus encourage people to stay physically distant, that's healthy. When those fears drive ailing people away from hospitals, though, it can be dangerous. While COVID-19 has changed the world, it hasn’t changed the fact that hospitals are the safest place to be if there’s a heart attack, stroke or other medical emergency.

Knocking Down Myths About Health Emergencies in COVID-19

Although some hospitals may be seeing fewer heart attack and stroke patients, that doesn’t mean those events are on the decline. At the peak of the pandemic, out-of-hospital cardiac arrests doubled or tripled in major cities with COVID-19 outbreaks, as reported by publications such as Lancet Public Health and JAMA Cardiology. According to the JAMA study, many states have seen huge increases in deaths from underlying diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. So, why are patients avoiding the hospital?

We’ve heard some patients think they’ll be a burden for emergency department personnel. Other patients may avoid or delay a hospital visit in fear of getting COVID-19. They shrug off their symptoms and think they’ll be fine at home. But it’s critical for these patients to know that the emergency response system is prepared to help patients safely and quickly, even during a pandemic. We are seeing patients wait until they are much sicker to receive the care they need. Unfortunately, when patients wait to seek care, damage to the heart increases. When a heart valve deteriorates significantly, there is more heart failure, and outcomes are much worse. On the other hand, patients who come to the hospital earlier can catch problems sooner. This can potentially save their lives. That’s true any day, and it’s true during COVID-19.

Hospitals Are The Safest Place For Emergency and Heart Disease Patients

We understand that patients are worried about COVID-19. Many people don’t even want to go to the grocery store. But hospitals are the safest place for you during a medical emergency. They are equipped to safely protect patients from potential exposure to COVID-19 while taking care of their emergent health concerns. Separate intake and care areas, waiting room distancing, staff screening, ongoing use of personal protective equipment, universal masking, and extensive safety and sanitation protocols, are in place to ensure all patients are cared for in a protected environment. Our health system continuously monitors guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and adjusts safety practices and safeguards accordingly.

Signs You Need to Call 911

Calling 911 at the first sign of a heart attack or stroke could save your life, or a loved one’s. Don’t assume that what you’re experiencing is “nothing.” Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Pay attention to your body and call 911 if you experience chest discomfort, discomfort in other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

With strokes, the important acronym to remember is F.A.S.T. That stands for face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, time to call 911. It’s common to mistake or minimize signs of stroke, but don’t delay treatment. For example, if your arm is suddenly numb or weak, and it doesn’t go away in a few minutes, don’t assume it just fell asleep. Call 911.

No one should risk their health out of fear of COVID-19. Timely treatment is critical for achieving the best outcomes. Hospitals are set up to provide the safe, effective care you need.

Dr. Samer Garas is a cardiologist and medical director of the cardiovascular service line at Ascension St. Vincent’s. For more information on Dr. Garas and his specialty of interventional cardiology, visit Healthcare.ascension.org.

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