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Editorial: Don’t let virus fear keep you out of the ER

A man in his 20s tried to ignore the growing pain in his belly, toughing it out at home with over-the-counter painkillers. By the time he showed up at the Medical University of South Carolina, perhaps 10 days later than he should have, he had developed a large abscess that was gnawing through the muscle in his abdominal wall.

What should have been a routine surgery and a night in the hospital had become a lengthy and difficult inpatient stay with surgery and antibiotics to control a widespread infection, the hospital’s trauma medical director, Evert Eriksson, told Bloomberg News.

From appendicitis to heart attacks to strokes, it’s a scenario playing out across the nation. People are reluctant to seek medical care out of fear of being exposed to COVID-19 when they go to an emergency room.

Albuquerque is no exception, as people with classic cardiac symptoms like pressure and heaviness in the chest and difficulty breathing are often waiting 12 to 24 hours to go to the ER.

“And unfortunately, many times the ship has already sailed, so to speak, on their heart,” said Dr. Mark Sheldon, interim chief of University of New Mexico Hospital’s Division of Cardiology. “Most of the damage is done in the first couple of hours.”

While the fear of being exposed to the novel coronavirus is understandable, people need to know that at this point the exposure risk seeking emergency hospital care is minimal. And it’s certainly far less of a risk than not seeking treatment for a stroke, heart attack or ruptured appendix.

At Lovelace Health System, for example, Medical Director Vesta Sandoval says there are separate emergency rooms for COVID and non-COVID patients. And there are separate operating rooms and floors as well. It’s like “a hospital within a hospital” to allow for treating COVID patients while caring for people with other medical problems without fear of cross contamination.

UNM Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth says UNMH has put in place “very effective ways to protect our patients regardless of why they come to the hospital. As of (Monday) morning, we have had zero patients infected with COVID while in the hospital.”

Presbyterian, which operates Albuquerque Ambulance, has similar screening and patient safeguards. Despite that, ambulance service director Scott Kaspar says in recent weeks his units are seeing 25% to 30% fewer runs than projected.

“The patients we are seeing tend to be sicker,” he says. “What we’re hearing anecdotally is, ‘I waited before I called because I just didn’t want to go to the hospital.'”

Coupled with the state order dramatically limiting non-emergency type medical procedures, some worry illness and mortality from unaddressed health issues could rival the damage inflicted by the virus in regions less affected by COVID-19. It’s parallel health crises.

While there are weekly press conferences on the dangers of the virus and what to do to avoid spreading it, New Mexicans’ unaddressed health problems are an incredibly serious issue that gets much less attention.

People need to understand this: Our medical professionals have put elaborate systems in place to protect you from contamination. If you have serious symptoms that would have had you dialing 911 or going to the ER a year ago, don’t hesitate to go now because you’re afraid of COVID-19. It’s not a good reason to put your life at risk.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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