An ER Doctor Explains Why the Hospital May Be One of the Safest Places During a Pandemic
"You're more at risk from an acute heart attack or stroke than you are from catching COVID in a hospital."
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, not only on the US but on the world—but it's essential to remember that just because we're in the midst of a pandemic, it doesn't mean that other important health issues have disappeared.
"People are pretty afraid to come to hospitals because they're worried they're going to get COVID," Ivette Motola, MD, MPH, emergency medicine physician at University of Miami Health Systems, tells Health. Dr. Motola says she's seen about a 30% decrease in the amount of strokes, heart attacks, and other time-sensitive medical emergencies her department typically sees, due to COVID-19.
That's a huge concern for physicians right now: Patients not getting the treatment they need for other ailments out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. But it turns out, the hospital is a relatively safe place to be—even during a pandemic.
"I think one of the most important things to say is that you're more at risk from an acute heart attack or stroke than you are from catching COVID in a hospital," Dr. Motola says. "Obviously, we take all of the precautions to reduce transmission, so if you don't come in with COVID, your odds of getting it are low." In that case, Dr. Motola says that if you're having a medical emergency of any kind, the best thing you can do is to visit the hospital to get the proper care. "I understand where the concern comes from," she says, "but I want people to feels safe that if they're having a medical emergency, they can come to the hospital and we're going to take care of them."
While Dr. Motola has personally seen a decline in the number of stroke cases and other medical emergencies at her hospital, she also notes that COVID-19 has triggered a rise in strokes related to the illness. According to Dr. Motola, these COVID-related strokes are due to a proinflammatory response that the body has to the virus. "You get increased coagulation, so something called hypercoagulability, and that predisposes folks to strokes, but also to other things like pulmonary emboli [blood clots in the lungs] or potentially heart attacks," she says.
These strokes have been reported throughout the world and are happening in much younger people, Dr. Motola says, but adds that experts are "still trying to gather all the information and enough numbers to understand what's going on."
While the virus is certainly scary and dangerous—and we still need to learn much more about it—Dr. Motola says that we know quite a bit about how to stay safe from COVID-19. "We know how to prevent it from being passed along, but if everyone isn't doing their part, then we get what we see now," Dr. Motola says, referencing a surge she's seen in Miami at her own hospital—mainly from reopening plans. "When we stared reopening, a combination of folks sick of being indoors, some of them or a lot of them choosing not to wear masks and convene in large groups, that has really led to this big surge," she says.
Dr. Motola also notes that, in the beginning of the pandemic, experts were seeing the effects of COVID-19 primarily in older people—those in their 60s, 70s, or 80s—while younger people believed they were less likely to be affected by it. But now that the disease is showing up in younger people too, Dr. Motola wants to remind everyone that the illness can affect anyone at any time.
"What I really want to convey to everyone is that you don't know how your body is going to react," she says. "You don't know if you're going to be one of those people who has no or minimal symptoms, or if you're going to end up being really sick on a ventilator and potentially dying."
That's where safety precautions come into play: social distancing, wearing masks, and frequent handwashing or other hygiene techniques. "I feel like people who don't take those precautions are really playing Russian roulette with their lives," Dr. Motola says.
"It's time for all of us—the US and the world—to really come together to fight this virus and this disease," Dr. Motola says. "The way we can do that is to listen to the scientists and the doctors that are trying to make everybody better, the public health experts that study this for a living and can make the recommendations, and the CDC and WHO guidelines, which are there to help keep everyone safe and healthy."
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