During the coronavirus pandemic, patients might be concerned about visiting hospitals for emergencies not related to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus. People might decide to hold off on seeing a doctor out of fear of contracting the illness, even if they have an emergency. However, doctors say it is safe to go to an emergency room for immediate health issues.
"I want people to feel comfortable and feel that it is safe to come to the ER for emergencies," Dr. Lisa Dabby, an emergency physician at UCLA Health medical center in Los Angeles, told PEOPLE. "I don't want people to be scared." Dabby explained that her hospital has a health care worker right at the door to separate patients showing COVID symptoms from the patients who are not so they are not exposed to the virus. Everyone who enters the facility is also given masks and every patient is being screened for COVID. "We're taking measures to keep people safe at every point in the process and not spread the virus," Dabby explained.
Dr. Vakim Reddy, the chief medical officer at Wellstar Kennestone and Winy Hill Hospitals in Georgia, said his facilities are taking similar measures. He agreed with Dabby, adding it is important for patients with serious medical emergencies to feel safe in an ER during the coronavirus pandemic. "What we have seen as a national trend is about a 40 percent decrease in emergency room visits," he said. "No one has an exact idea [why ER usage is down], but the concern has been that some people are staying away from emergency rooms, perhaps out of anxiety."
In Saginaw, Michigan, Dr. Aaron Smith at Covenant Healthcare also expressed concern about the drop in emergency room patients for non-coronavirus issues. "Locally here in Saginaw, we do have some sick people, but people are actually quite afraid to come to the hospital, we are not seeing as much as normal volume, as people with appendicitis and heart attacks, things of that nature, we are quite concerned," Smith told WJRT. He added that ER visits are down 50% at his hospital, which now even has a separate entrance for anyone showing symptoms of a respiratory issue.
Dabby and Reddy noted that when patients are coming into the emergency rooms, some are waiting too long and their health issues are worse. "Because people are scared to come to the ER, they’re waiting too long. So when they present, they're much sicker than they otherwise would have been had they come earlier," Dabby told PEOPLE. "They've waited a week, and by the time they present to us, their blood counts are so low that they need multiple units of blood and they’re in much more critical condition than had they come earlier."
As of Friday night, there are more than 2.2 million coronavirus cases worldwide, reports Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S., there are more than 701,000 cases, by far the most for any single country in the world. More than 36,900 deaths have been reported and over 3.5 million Americans have been tested.