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Fearing COVID-19, patients less likely to seek health care: Survey

Doctors were only seeing half of the number of people they would normally see come into emergency rooms.

NEW ORLEANS — Some doctors are calling it an astonishing trend. People are dying at home from medical emergencies because they are scared to go to the hospital.

Sunday, their message is 'go to the ER if you need medical help,' and this is especially important in the Greater New Orleans area because there is a high number of heart attacks and strokes.

Doctors are calling it alarming, the number of people in Louisiana who died in the spring during the height of the pandemic. But these lives were not all lost to COVID-19.

"It was almost like you were operating in this big storm and when the wind died down you noticed more of what wasn't there and what used to be there," said Dr. Jim Aiken, an LSU HSC Emergency Medicine physician.

Dr. Aiken has been on the front lines of treatment and planning for many disasters like Hurricane Katrina and now the coronavirus pandemic. And he says from mid-April through mid-May deaths from other causes skyrocketed.

"Louisiana, during that period of time, had actually 3,000 more deaths during that time than we did that time the year before," he said.

Of course, there was a staggering number of deaths from COVID-19 but not all of them were from that infection. 

Doctors were only seeing half of the number of people they would normally see come into emergency rooms with conditions like heart attacks, strokes, serious infections, in need of surgery from acute appendicitis, or gallbladder problems. 

And they just weren't seeing the amount of cancer medical emergencies that they normally see every day. And what EMS was seeing was worse.

"The paramedics were finding people dead in their homes was going up at an alarming rate. They were responding to calls, 50 percent more than usual of people being found dead," said Dr. Aiken.

Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirm what Dr. Aiken was seeing locally.

A survey from Morning Consult and the American College of Emergency Physicians draws the picture of the fear of going to the ER. Nearly a third of people said they delayed or avoided medical care out of fear of catching the coronavirus. Almost three-quarters are concerned about overstressing the healthcare system and nearly two-thirds are worried they will not be able to get the treatment from a doctor if they needed the care.

"And my heart fell when I saw that," Dr. Aiken said. "People were stunned by the pandemic and their decision making was so focused on catching a disease when they were having symptoms."

Doctors now have a campaign to let you know that when you need them for a medical emergency, they want to, and can treat you. And they can do it safely.

"We know how to protect people from contagious diseases. We have a long history with tuberculosis. We have a long history in taking care of other people with contagious diseases," he reassured.

So while we have been told that along with wearing masks, we need to stay home, a medical emergency is not one of those times.

The same higher death trend was seen nationwide. Doctors still don't know if some of the people who died of heart attacks and strokes at home, also had the coronavirus without symptoms. Slowly people are starting to go back to the ER.

This is a developing story, and it will be updated with the latest information available. Stick with WWLTV.com for the latest news.

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