COVID-19 (the disease caused by coronavirus) isn’t the only health emergency Americans are facing right now. Other conditions requiring emergency care aren’t making the news, and cases have all but disappeared from hospitals at an alarming rate. But this doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.
Heart Conditions Are Still Emergencies, But Aren’t in the ER Recently
In the U.S., someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and one American dies every 37 seconds from cardiovascular disease. Coronavirus hasn’t overwritten these statistics, and just because we’ve been hearing so much about COVID-19 cases doesn’t mean deaths from heart disease aren’t occurring.
Right now, hospitals are seeing fewer and fewer people with conditions that also require emergency care, like stroke and heart attack. “It’s unlikely that there’s been a decline in these conditions,” says Rajesh Shah, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist and director of the acute coronary syndrome program at AdventHealth. It’s more likely that the people aren’t getting in-person care when they need it.
Coronavirus Fears Are at the Heart of the Matter
Because of coronavirus, many people are afraid to come to the hospital, even for a potentially life-threatening event like a heart attack. Many reports of drops in hospital admissions for heart attack and other emergency heart conditions are anecdotal, existing in social media posts and polls by doctors online. Efforts to track and control the pandemic have limited the availability of formal studies.
“Even though we don’t have the numbers to form a complete picture of just how many people are staying home with dangerous heart symptoms, we know enough that this is a serious problem that we need to address quickly,” Dr. Shah says.
Stay-at-Home Orders Don’t Apply for Heart Emergencies
With public health officials and organizations like the CDC and World Health Organization urging people to stay home, follow social distancing and stay out of the ER except in an emergency, it’s little wonder that hospital admissions for heart-related emergencies are low.
The general sentiment of the moment is that many Americans are scared to leave home, even for essentials like groceries, for fear of getting COVID-19 — much less go to a health care institution. This fear is especially true for people who face a higher-than-average risk of complications from COVID-19 because they have serious heart conditions like:
- Congenital heart disease
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart failure
- Pulmonary hypertension
However, while it’s everyone’s responsibility to slow the spread of coronavirus, staying home doesn’t apply to medical emergencies like difficulty breathing, stroke and heart attack. All medical emergencies need immediate, in-person care at the hospital, and all AdventHealth campuses are taking steps to keep patients safe.
“You can’t take care of a heart attack yourself at home,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s more dangerous to sit with your symptoms at home than to go to the ER for in-person care.”
Why You Shouldn’t Wait to Get ER Care for Heart Conditions
Take it from an experienced cardiologist: It’s never worth it to forgo ER care for heart-related emergencies. Doing so could cause further unnecessary damage to your heart. “We’re seeing people waiting until their symptoms have already done a great deal of damage before they come in for care,” says Dr. Shah. At that point, he emphasizes, treatment can become more complicated, and reversing the damage done to the heart may be less likely.
With heart-related emergencies, the faster you get medical attention, the better your outcomes are. At the first signs of a heart attack, call 911 and get help quickly. “Heart attacks are best treated within the earliest onset of symptoms. If you wait longer than that to get treatment, you’re risking severe damage to your heart,” he says.
People who have serious heart conditions shouldn’t forgo care out of fear of getting coronavirus, or fear that they already have COVID-19. Heart conditions that could lead to an emergency like heart attack, or inflammation in the heart from COVID-19 (a complication of the illness) both need professional attention quickly. So, either way, leaving home for medical care may be necessary.
What Hospitals Are Doing to Keep You Safe From COVID-19
Dr. Shah — and all the health care experts you know and trust at AdventHealth — want to reassure you that going to the hospital for heart-related problems is both necessary for your health and safe to do.
All AdventHealth campuses are taking the necessary precautions to keep people safe from coronavirus and are dedicated to treating both COVID-19 patients and patients with other health emergencies. “We’re doing everything we can to save lives from COVID-19, and we also want to keep preventable deaths from heart conditions from happening. Don’t hesitate to come to us in a health emergency,” Dr. Shah says.
Extra safety measures being taken at AdventHealth emergency departments include:
- All team members wearing appropriate personal protective equipment
- Changes to waiting rooms for social distancing, such as floor markers and seat covers so people can stay 6 feet apart
- COVID-19 temperature screening and questions at all ER entry points
- Frequent cleaning and disinfecting of lobby areas, patient rooms and high-touch surfaces
- Remote check-in processes at some facilities (you can wait in your car until directed to come inside)
- Separate care areas for people who have COVID-19
- Universal face mask policy for all team members, visitors and patients
Know the Warning Signs of Heart Emergencies, and Get Help Fast
Two heart emergencies that require immediate medical care are heart attack and cardiac arrest. “A heart attack happens from a plumbing problem in your heart, like a blocked artery,” explains Dr. Shah, “With cardiac arrest, blood flow to a part of your heart is blocked.” However, a heart attack can sometimes trigger an electrical disturbance in your heart that leads to sudden cardiac arrest, Dr. Shah adds.
While they’re different, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are emergencies. If you or someone you love is having these symptoms, don’t wait to get care.
Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest
Heart attacks often occur over minutes or hours, involve pain and shortness of breath and may lead to cardiac arrest. Heart attack symptoms can include:
- Back or jaw pain (more common in women)
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Chest pain or pressure
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Extreme fatigue or fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
Unlike a heart attack, cardiac arrest occurs suddenly (it may come right after a heart attack), involves the person falling unconscious with no pulse and can be lethal without immediate help. Look for these signs of cardiac arrest:
- No breathing
- No pulse
- Loss of consciousness
- Sudden collapse
“Don’t ignore these symptoms, and get care right away,” Dr. Shah says. Every minute counts to save a life.
Other Medical Emergencies That Need ER Care
If you’re experiencing a medical emergency but it’s not heart-related, you should still call 911 or go to your closest ER. Emergencies that require immediate, in-person care at the hospital include:
- Coughing up blood
- Deep wounds, and fractures where a bone is visible
- Difficulty breathing
- Head injury
- Poison exposure or swallowing
- Severe burns
- Stroke symptoms (facial droop, arm weakness, slurred speech)
Not sure where your local ER is? Be prepared before the unexpected happens and find a location near you.
Here for You With Safe, In-Person Care for Your Heart
We’re dedicated to helping you and your family weather any health emergency at any time. You can count on us for expert care and uncommon compassion for COVID-19, heart-related emergencies, minor ailments and all routine health concerns. Nothing is more important to us than your safety, and we’re taking steps to keep you safe during in-person care at every facility.
Get regular updates about COVID-19, answers to FAQs, advice for your family and more on our Coronavirus Resource Hub.