Non-COVID health emergencies should not be ignored or delayed, local doctors urge
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Across the country, emergency rooms are not seeing the same volume of visits for non-COVID-19 illness or injury, and that has doctors concerned people who need care may not be getting it.
At UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, emergency room visits were down 31% for the month of March, said Communications Specialist Lindsey Reznicek.
At Steamboat Emergency Center, Dr. Matthew Freeman said they are seeing an increase in patients with potential COVID-19 symptoms, but the facility’s overall volume is down as much as 40% to 50%. Before the pandemic, Freeman said the emergency center was experiencing its biggest year since opening in 2017.
But the big concern is people delaying or not getting treatment for things that do require immediate care.
“If a patient had a concern pre-COVID-19 that they would have sought care for in the emergency department, they should still seek care in the emergency department for that concern during and after COVID-19, because that concern can get a lot worse if it’s not addressed in a timely manner,” said Nathan Anderson, the hospital’s emergency medicine physician and trauma medicine co-director.
In Steamboat, the shortened ski season undoubtedly accounts for some of that drop in March; however, the decrease is being seen across the state and country.
On one hand, there are fewer work and recreation-related accidents, and data is showing a significant drop in car accidents across the nation — by as much as 75%.
But emergency departments are also seeing fewer people coming in for things like chest pain — symptoms that could indicate something much more serious and something for which risk of complications and death can be significantly reduced if treated early.
Anderson wants to make sure people in the community know the ER is still ready and capable of fulfilling the same role it did before the coronavirus.
Things have certainly changed in the emergency department in response to COVID-19, Anderson said, including the physical configuration, how the staff is operating and how they are presenting themselves to the community.
But the ER is still there to meet all the non-COVID emergency health needs in the community.
“The fundamental mission is still the same — to evaluate problems that might require immediate attention,” he said
The local hospital is still a safety net for those most in need and with nowhere else to go, Anderson emphasized.
With only four COVID-19 hospitalizations to date, the hospital has not, at this point, been anywhere near overwhelming its capacity. But part of the surge plans provides the resources and staff needed to continue to care for non-COVID emergencies no matter what happens.
There has been public messaging to stay home unless something is life-threatening, but Freeman said that warning is likely being taken to the extreme in some cases. People who are afraid of going to the ER might be downplaying chest pain as heart burn, for example, when in reality they need to get it checked out, he said.
If people are “trying to avoid the ER at all costs, that’s a really dangerous situation,” Freeman said. “You could really be doing a disservice to yourself by not seeking help in a timely manner.”
Both Anderson and Freeman give the example of appendicitis and people who are experiencing severe abominable pain as a symptom. If caught early, it is a relatively easy fix.
If not, it means days — not hours — in the hospital with IVs and antibiotics and a much higher risk of complications. The different between an appendix rupturing and not rupturing can be a matter of just a few hours.
“It’s a whole different magnitude of seriousness,” Anderson said.
Any significant chest discomfort, uncontrollable pain, significant bleeding, severe headaches, severe vomiting or diarrhea or signs of stroke — like slurring of speech, face droop, or weak limbs — need to be addressed and addressed quickly.
For those things, “There should be no hesitation” in seeking immediate care, Freeman said.
And that goes for mental health too, Anderson noted.
There has never been more virtual medicine available — including at both local emergency rooms and through primary care providers — that can be utilized if someone has questions about whether what they are experiencing is emergent.
And Anderson notes that if fear of catching COVID-19 is keeping people away, the immense precautions being taken by the hospital right now in all likelihood make it a safer place than going to the grocery store.
There remain too many unknowns to say anything definitively at this time as to where Routt County is in its battle against the virus, Anderson said. But local medical care providers do want to make sure people who need immediate care are seeking that care — just as they would have done pre-coronavirus.
The emergency rooms are safe, the doctors stress, and they are never too busy to provide necessary care at any time of day or night.
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