"I would rather die than risk getting coronavirus right now.”
That’s what a patient told Dr. Comilla Sasson, an emergency medicine physician in Denver, after she advised the patient during a telemedicine visit that she was showing signs of a heart attack and should go to a hospital.
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“I asked if I could talk to one of her family members and she said ‘no’ — that she had already made up her mind,” Sasson told NBC News. It’s unclear what the woman’s diagnosis turned out to be, because she did not reach out to Sasson again.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, medical emergencies unrelated to COVID-19 still occur. Sasson, who works at three hospitals in the Denver area, is among a number of doctors who worry that people experiencing warning signs of life-threatening conditions are delaying seeking emergency help out of fear of going to coronavirus-strained emergency rooms.
“Every minute that you delay, the likelihood of you having a worse outcome increases,” said Sasson, who is also vice president for science and innovation for emergency cardiovascular care at the American Heart Association.
She used a heart attack as an example: “If you get to the hospital within a few minutes, we can open up that heart vessel and get blood flowing to your heart, but if you delay even a few hours, that could be the difference between life and death.”
Fear or benevolence?
At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, doctors observed the same trend that U.S. doctors are seeing now. In a letter in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, physicians wrote that people who were experiencing symptoms of a heart attack waited to seek care after hospitals had suspended nonessential visits. Treatment for a heart attack, however, is essential.
According to Dr. Dhruv Kazi, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, putting off seeking medical care for potentially life-threatening conditions unrelated to COVID-19 is likely fueled by multiple factors: people choosing not to go to the hospital out of fear of contracting the virus, lack of transportation to the hospital, and citizens concerned about clogging the medical system.