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Doctors see dramatic drop in ER visits amid coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Wyatt Hall works inside the emergency room at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco on Tuesday, May 5. There has been a nationwide decline in emergency room visits due to the coronavirus pandemic, with patients fearing the possibility of contracting the virus while seeking care.
Jason Connolly / jconnolly@summitdaily.com

FRISCO — You are more likely to contract COVID-19 at a grocery store than at the emergency room, said Dr. Mark Doucette, emergency department medical director at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.

Across the country, hospitals have been reporting low numbers of emergency room visits because of anxiety patients have about contracting the virus.

Summit County isn’t any different. The hospital’s emergency department has seen a dramatic drop in visits since the first confirmed case of the virus March 5. Doucette said visits dropped 50% to 60% once ski areas closed. The hospital is still experiencing a 20% to 30% drop from typical May and April numbers. Specifically, Doucette said hospitals across the country have seen a drop in visits related to heart attacks and stroke.

Doucette said the department has received calls from people who are worried about contracting the virus by coming to the emergency room.

“Our concern at this point is that people are delaying care because of fear of going to the emergency room,” he said.

The likelihood of that happening is next to zero percent, Doucette said.

“(The risk) is probably less than going to the grocery store, let’s say,” Doucette said.

A very small percentage of patients going through the ER are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, Doucette said. Those patients are kept in isolation and separate from other ER patients. The hospital has taken up other precautions, as well. Workers are wearing personal protective equipment that protects patients and doctors.

Dr. Wyatt Hall works inside the emergency room at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco on Tuesday, May 5. There has been a nationwide decline in emergency room visits due to the coronavirus pandemic, with patients fearing the possibility of contracting the virus while seeking care.
Jason Connolly / jconnolly@summitdaily.com

Other than that, things are mostly business as usual and people shouldn’t expect anything different out of their ER visit, he said.

“The risk of having a bad outcome from not seeking care for chest pain, abdominal pain or traumatic injury is much greater than not seeking attention by coming in,” he said.

People shouldn’t be afraid to call 911 for a medical emergency either. Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino said the fire department’s call volume has been down 80%, but he can’t say whether that has to do with fear or the fact that there are fewer people in the county. Berino said he hasn’t heard anything about people being hesitant to call 911.

“We can reassure people when they call 911 our firefighters and medics will be in full protective gear, so people should have no fear of calling 911 for fear of us contaminating them,” he said.

Berino said firefighters and EMS workers are outfitted with masks, gowns, gloves and face protection. The department also has taken on extra precautions. Dispatchers are asking more questions to screen individuals for symptoms of the virus when they call.

Chris Cuculis of Summit Fire & EMS demonstrates how to disinfect COVID-19 from the interior of a fire engine on Friday, March 13.
Liz Copan / ecopan@summitdaily.com

The department also has started minimizing contact with patients. Fewer paramedics and firefighters are entering houses, EMS workers have stopped taking blood pressure unless necessary and ambulances are disinfected after each ride. EMS workers also will avoid going into people’s homes and call to assess the situation from outside the home instead, if possible.

Whenever patients are unwilling to go to the ER or hesitant, firefighters will call the hospital’s emergency department to get their advice on whether they should encourage the patient to go to the ER.

“We’ve taken some draconian measures, but it’s working to put our patients at ease and our firefighters at ease,” Berino said.

The fire department hasn’t had any cases of COVID-19 among its workers, he said.

Doctor’s offices are safe to visit, as well. Misty Shell, manager at the Summit Community Care Clinic, said half of the clinic’s patients have been afraid to go to the doctor while the other half are insisting to be seen in person.

To help ease the concern and prevent the spread of the virus, the clinic is offering telehealth services, which allow patients to get treated without going to the doctor in person. The clinic uses a platform that sends a link to patients so they can enter their doctor’s “waiting room.” Once the appointment starts, patients are able to video chat with their doctor.

“They’re on video and audio, so the provider then can come and connect with them face-to-face,” she said.

Doucette said Centura Health also is offering telehealth services at its High Country Health Care clinics.

“I want to stress that we are open, and we are prepared and ready for people with any type of emergency,” Doucette said.


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