Heart Health Month pumps new life into the importance of ER treatment

February is American Heart Month, and doctors are reminding adults to be on the lookout for symptoms of heart attack and other conditions that might need emergency care such as a stroke.

Despite the dangers of COVID-19, heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S. Studies have shown that cardiovascular deaths have spiked amid the pandemic, in part, because men and women had been less likely to go to the emergency room during the nationwide shutdown in the spring of 2020. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reveals overall emergency room visits dropped by 42% in the first few months of the pandemic (March-June 2020). During that same time, the ER experienced a decline in heart attack (23%), stroke (20%) and hyperglycemic crisis (10%) cases.

Risk factors for both heart disease and stroke include diabetes, being overweight or obese, having an unhealthy diet, limited physical activity and excessive alcohol use. Almost half of all Americans (47%) have at least one of these risk factors.

A recent survey shows almost one-third (32%) of Americans and more than half (53%) of heart disease patients “have ignored at least one troubling symptom because of the pandemic.” Symptoms noted included shortness of breath, dizziness and increased blood pressure.

“Staying home, ignoring the symptoms and suffering out of fear of COVID-19 is a risk people shouldn’t take with their health,” says Dr. Gregory Brusko, Chief Clinical Officer at Ascension Wisconsin, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner. “Timely treatment is critically important for achieving the best outcomes and lessening the risk of complications. We are prepared and set up to safely treat patients who require emergency care.”

Fortunately, physicians are now seeing a shift in the trend of patients avoiding the ER. “We are seeing patients coming in to seek medical care for cardiac and other non-COVID related conditions,” notes Dr. Simone Fearon, Medical Director of ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. She believes strict hospital safety measures have helped to shift people’s mindset. “We now know that reliably adhering to certain precautions decreases the risk of transmission of the virus. Within our EDs (emergency departments) we have instituted and maintain strict precautions to keep our patients and staff safe. It has been and will be our number one priority.”

ThedaCare’s “Get Care Now” community campaign is helping to bring people back to seeking immediate treatment by offering patients more options, such as virtual visits and safe in-person, urgent and emergency care, so they can stay healthy. ThedaCare is a Be Safe Wisconsin partner.

The precautions health care facilities are taking to keep people safe include:

  • Universal Masking. Emergency rooms require everyone to wear a face mask. Health care professionals are required to wear personal protective equipment.
  • Screening at all entrances. Everyone entering is screened for COVID signs and symptoms through a temperature check and more.
  • Separate waiting areas for people who have or may have COVID. People may be asked to wait in separate designated areas of the ER away from those who don’t have COVID signs and symptoms.
  • Frequent cleaning. ER waiting areas, rooms, restrooms and surfaces are cleaned and disinfected often to accommodate updated COVID hospital protocols.
  • Social distancing. Check-in and waiting areas in emergency rooms and hospitals are arranged for social distancing.

Emergency physicians hope by reminding people of these safety precautions, they will get care immediately, if they experience these heart attack and stroke symptoms.

  • Heart attack symptoms. Shortness of breath, jaw or back pain, or stroke-like symptoms, including weakness in one side of the body. Men and women can experience different symptoms when they are having a heart attack, so it is important to get medical help immediately.
  • Stroke signs. Strokes can be spotted by using the acronym FAST: Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech slurred and Time to call emergency services.

“Although COVID-19 has changed the world, it hasn’t changed the fact that hospitals are the safest place to be if there’s a heart attack, stroke or other medical emergency,” notes Liz Jirschele, Communications Director at the American Heart Association, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner.

She adds you can avoid the ER altogether by staying healthy. “It is important to know that 80% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented. Knowing your family history, blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, getting enough physical activity and eating smart by cutting down on added sodium and sugar, are some easy ways to stay heart healthy.”