Since the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S. in March, people have opted to stay home — sometimes even when they need emergency medical attention. Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “one out of every five people having either a heart attack or a stroke have not come to the emergency department for care,” says Ravi Dave, MD, director of interventional cardiology at UCLA. “Considering that someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 40 seconds, this is a huge number.”
The obvious problem with waiting, Dr. Dave says, is that the clock starts as soon as the first symptoms appear. The faster a person gets treatment, the greater the chance of not dying or experiencing permanent heart muscle damage that could lead to congestive heart failure or sudden cardiac death, or in the case of stroke, lifelong paralysis.
Doctors across the U.S. are reporting that patients are now showing up sometimes as late as a week after their heart attack or stroke, Dr. Dave says. At that point, there is little physicians can do to reduce damage. “Any treatment in the first 90 minutes can be potentially lifesaving,” Dr. Dave says, adding that if a patient opts to stay home and monitor the symptoms, “they risk a poor outcome.”
As concerns about COVID-19 continue, physicians and leaders from national medical organizations are urging anyone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke to call 911 or immediately go to the emergency department.
The symptoms of a stroke include face drooping, arm weakness, slurred speech and sudden numbness, confusion or trouble walking or seeing. The most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. Other symptoms include jaw pain, arm numbness, nausea and shortness of breath, although women’s symptoms can be a bit less clear.
When in doubt, patients should come in and be checked out rather than try to manage symptoms at home or wait for an appointment with their doctor. “There’s no time to waste when dealing with a heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Dave says.
For people who worry that they’re over-inflating concerns and would rather take a wait-and-see approach, Dr. Dave notes that 80 percent of people who come into the emergency department with symptoms of a stroke actually are having a stroke. While that percentage is much lower for heart attacks, it cannot be ruled out without a physical exam and evaluation. “There’s no way to know what’s going on unless you come in,” he says.
The emergency departments of medical centers like UCLA have enhanced their infection-prevention protocols to ensure a safe environment. All patients coming to UCLA, as well as visitors and staff members, are prescreened before they enter the hospital. This includes a temperature check and symptom monitoring. Patients who present with heart attack or stroke symptoms are brought into a separate area to receive treatment.
“The risks of ignoring a heart attack or stroke are much worse than any risk of being exposed to the coronavirus disease when seeking care,” Dr. Dave says.