COVID-19 fear keeping ill people away from ERs

Hospitals say they’re safe, have plenty of room

A TRIO OF HOSPITAL EXECUTIVES joined Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday to warn against an alarming new trend – people with serious medical conditions staying away from hospitals out of fear of COVID-19 and facing dangerous repercussions later.

“One of my surgeons said to me last week that he has done more amputations in the last two weeks than he can ever remember,” said Dr. Gregg Meyer , the chief clinical officer of Partners HealthCare. “Patients knew they had significant problems but they wanted to take care of it at home and avoided coming in. We couldn’t save them with limb-sparing treatment.”

Meyer, who was joined by Nancy Shendell-Falik, president of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and Michael Apkon, the president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center, said the overwhelming COVID crunch that many had feared has not materialized, and large portions of their emergency rooms and hospitals are sitting empty.

“It is true we are quite busy caring for patients with COVID-19, but we have a growing concern about what we’re not seeing,” said Apkon, noting his hospital is seeing about half the patients it normally sees for stroke symptoms, heart attacks and trauma.

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Meyer said the number of emergency room visits in January was 5,400. Over the last 31 days, he said, the patient count in the ER has dropped to 2,800, with half of them COVID-19 cases. He said there’s been a sharp dropoff in heart attacks and appendectomies.

Shendell-Falik said Baystate Medical Center has 1,000 beds and only 550 are in use – with 150 for COVID-19 patients and 400 for non-COVID patients. She said there has been an 80 percent decline in patients with stroke symptoms over the last month.

Baker said more than half of the 18,000 available hospital beds statewide are empty, and nearly 4,000 are being used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Boston, MA – 4/23/20 –
Nancy Shendell-Falik, President of The Baystate Medical center speaks during a press conference in the Gardner Auditorium at the Massachusetts State House on April 23, 2020. Gov. Charlie Baker was joined by a number of leaders in the Commonwealth Healthcare community to talk about the dangers of not seeking medical care for fear of being exposed to the Coronavirus during the COVID-19 epidemic.
(Blake Nissen/ For The Boston Globe)

The hospital officials said some of the decline could be attributed to the fact that many people are staying home and not driving around getting in car crashes. But they said the more likely reason is that they are afraid to go to hospital because of fear of COVID-19.

In response, six Boston-area hospitals organized a public service announcement that will be broadcast on area television stations in hopes of convincing people it’s safe to go to the hospital.

The hospital executives stressed that their hospitals have staff wearing personal protective equipment, and that facilities are constantly being disinfected so patient care can go uninterrupted. “We are safe, and we are here for you,” said Shendell-Falik.

“The hospital is a safe place despite this pandemic,” said Apkon.

Apkon acknowledged the reduce activity at hospitals has financial consequences for the facilities, but he said that is not the top priority right now.

Shendell-Falik said her hospital hit its peak level of COVID-19 care on April 8, but she said she would leave to the governor the decision about when it would be appropriate to resume to more normal operations.

All hospitals have stopped doing elective surgeries, and Shendell-Falik said bookings for routine care are currently being made for June, when she hopes the crisis will have past. She said people who had to put off elective surgeries should keep a close eye on the situation.

“Perhaps what was elective in early March is now urgent or emergent,” she said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“If you are ill, please call your physician to seek care. If you’re a victim of violence or domestic abuse, if you’re having chest pain or if you’re having shortness of breath … call 911,” Apkon said.

“We need to avoid a second toll of the pandemic, one for which we do have treatments that work,” Meyer said.