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Fear Of COVID-19 Is Keeping Patients From Seeking Lifesaving Emergency Treatment

Dr. Robert Poirier works in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department. He says patients are dying because they're waiting too long to seek care in the region's ERs.
Erin Jones | Barnes-Jewish Hospital
Dr. Robert Poirier works in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department. He says patients are dying because they're waiting too long to seek care in the region's ERs.

People in the St. Louis region are dying from preventable causes such as strokes or heart attacks because they’re afraid of contracting COVID-19 in emergency rooms, doctors said this week.

Patient volume in the region’s emergency rooms is down by as much as 50%, according to hospital officials at Barnes-Jewish, SSM Health and Mercy hospitals. Doctors want to ensure patients that they won't contract the coronavirus in the ER and should seek care if they need it.

“The number-one thing I hear is patients are fearful of all hospitals currently; they’re trying to stay away,” said Dr. Alok Sengupta, regional chair for emergency medicine at Mercy hospitals. “Someone who’s had some chest pain and some weakness that would normally come to an emergency department is staying home because of that fear of getting COVID-19 in a hospital.”

Federal officials from Centers for Disease for Disease Control and Preventionhave warned people who might have COVID-19 to visit the emergency room only if they have serious respiratory symptoms. 

But patients who would normally come in because of grave illness are also waiting too long to seek care.

Dr. Robert Poirier, clinical chief at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department, has seen several patients in recent weeks die or become permanently disabled after a heart attack or stroke because they avoided hospitals.

“We know if we had reached them when symptoms started, figured out what was going on, we could have potentially altered the unfortunate outcomes,” he said.

Doctors also worry that news coverage of overloaded hospitalsin New York City and Italy has led the public to believe the region’s hospitals are being strained beyond their limits.

“They’re watching what’s going on in New York, and the chaos and the craziness and all these COVID patients around, and they think it’s the same in St. Louis, when it actually is not,” Poirier said.

Early implementation of stay-at-home orderssaved St. Louis hospitals from an unmanageable surge in patients, according to Alex Garza, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which comprises St. Louis’ four largest health systems.

Stay-at-home orders could also explain lower patient volumes, Garza said last week. Fewer people outside their homes means fewer car crashes, fights or construction accidents.

Patients should not be afraid of contracting COVID-19 in the emergency room, doctors said.

Hospital workers screen patients before they enter the emergency department, Sengupta said. People with coronavirus symptoms are kept separate from other patients with broken bones or other emergencies.

Sengupta and Poirier urged worried patients to seek care soon. If they aren’t sure if their problem is an emergency, they should call a doctor or 911 immediately.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.