Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the world. One person dies every 37 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.
However, new research has discovered a troubling trend: during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people who are experiencing signs and symptoms of a heart attack are not calling 9-1-1 and getting immediate treatment. It’s not that fewer people are having heart attacks, doctors say. Rather, it’s fear of getting COVID-19 keeping people from hospitals, and the consequences can be deadly.
Experts from the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, one of the premier heart centers in the nation, are warning the public that a heart attack is a major, life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical care.
“If you have symptoms of a heart attack or any other health emergency, it’s vital that you call 9-1-1 and be evaluated as soon as possible,” said Dr. Kirk Knowlton, interim chair of cardiology and director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute. “Our team at Intermountain Healthcare is here to take care of you, our hospitals are safe, and we want to help you get the care you need.”
Fear of COVID-19 exposure has caused a nationwide drop in 9-1-1 emergency calls. At the same time, some people with severe, life-threatening conditions are waiting too long to seek care. The American Heart Association reports that 911 calls are down for 25-40% for heart attacks, and 35% for strokes.
A new study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente documented the trend, an unexpected byproduct of COVID-19, as one of the main findings in a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers found the rate of hospitalization for heart attacks was nearly cut in half, falling by 48% from the beginning of January until mid-April. The study used data from Kaiser Permanente’s 21 medical centers in Northern California and the Central Valley and measured the rate weekly.
Dr. Knowlton said that while people were encouraged to stay home and save lives during this crisis, it’s critical that they understand that it’s OK to call 9-1-1 if they are experiencing a medical emergency.
“Time is of the essence when it comes to heart attack, stroke, or respiratory distress, and receiving care quickly could be the difference between life and death,” he said. “It’s safe to go to the hospital. Do not delay life-saving care.”
Hospitals have strict protocols in place around sanitizing, socially distancing, and keeping infected people isolated. Many hospitals now have separate emergency rooms, operating rooms, cardiac catheterization rooms, and ICUs for people with COVID-19, and for people without.
Warning signs and symptoms of heart attack:
- Discomfort in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back (it can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain)
- Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
A lack of blood to the heart may seriously damage the heart muscle and can be life-threatening.
“It’s important to know that not everyone experiences severe chest pain in the same way,” said Dr. Knowlton. “This is particularly the case with many women. Sometimes the pain can often be mild and mistaken for indigestion. It’s the combination of symptoms that’s important in determining whether a person is having a heart attack and not the severity of chest pain. If there’s any question, please call 9-1-1- and get immediate care.”
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