New concern: Where are the heart attack and stroke patients?

HOUSTON – We are seeing an unexpected side effect of COVID-19: non-COVID emergency room traffic is actually down. Doctors are concerned and asking, “Where have all of the heart attack and stroke patients gone?”

Many doctors say the coronavirus pandemic has produced another problem: People who need hospital care but are not coming in.

Doctors say they worry unaddressed health problems will lead to bigger issues down the road.

“To see a decrease of about 30 to 40% of patients coming in to get the treatment for an acute heart attack is of concern,” said Dr. William Zoghbi, Chief of Cardiology, Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center.

The drop in emergency room visits is happening in Houston and at other hospitals across the country. But why?

“Concern of contracting the disease or social-economic or job concerns," Dr. Zoghbi said. “It is counterintuitive because this pandemic is causing a lot of stress on people.”

Long term damage

The concern: Patients might be enduring symptoms of a stroke such as numbness or weakness on one side of the body. These signs can be warnings of larger strokes to come. With heart attacks, symptoms include chest discomfort with radiation to the neck or left arm, shortness of breath, sweating or nausea.

"We know time is a muscle, and that the longer you wait the more damage is done to the heart muscle,” said Dr. Charles Davidson, Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Doctors expect they will soon see patients who have dangerously delayed seeking care.

“I really think this is going to gradually increase within the next week or two - certainly more and more,” Dr. Zoghbi said. “The overall message to individuals in the community is please take care of your health.”

Emergency rooms are taking extra precautions right now, separating patients with COVID-like symptoms. They say they will keep you safe if you come in and you should never stay home and ignore even a suspicion of a heart attack.