Doctors worry non-COVID patients are avoiding hospitals during emergencies

As they struggle with an onslaught of patients sickened by COVID-19, New Jersey’s hospitals are also reporting a significant drop in the number of people who show up with conditions not related to the virus behind the pandemic.

“We’ve seen obviously the number of COVID-19-related patients coming in, filling up the capacity of the emergency department,” said Dr. Lewis Nelson, chief of that unit at University Hospital in Newark. “But the number of patients that have the conventional emergency department type complaints — whether it’s stroke or heart attack, seizures, asthma — we just [are] not seeing that.”

The state, which is tracking the numbers of COVID-19 cases at New Jersey hospitals each day, does not compile data on emergency room visits by people with complaints other than the virus as part of that effort. But those on the front lines say the trend is unmistakable.

Nelson says the drop in non-COVID-19 cases for the emergency room at University, North Jersey’s lone state-designated Level 1 Trauma Center, has been more than 50%, and the trend predates the recent surge of cases of infection with the virus that has tested the facility’s critical care capabilities.

“We had virtually no patients in the emergency department before the COVID patients starting coming in,” he said. “I sort of analogized it to a tsunami where the water recedes before the tidal wave comes in.”

The situation is similar at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, another facility hit hard by the pandemic.

“If you looked at our emergency room over the past month, I would say 80% to 90% of what we were seeing was coronavirus, and that is obviously unusual,” said Dr. Adam Jarrett, Holy Name’s chief medical officer. “And a lot of that had to do with the fact that people were not seeking out care for non-coronavirus related issues.”

To some degree, the experts say, the trend can be attributed to the cancellation of elective procedures, as well as a side benefit of social distancing, as people shelter at home and run less risk of accidents and contracting other diseases.

But it is also a source of worry for medical professionals like Jarrett, who says that choosing to avoid the hospital during a medical emergency can be dangerous, or even deadly.

“If your symptoms are mild, maybe it’s acceptable,” he said. “But if your symptoms are significant and you’re delaying the care you need, it come make your outcome significantly worse.”

Kathleen Bennett, the CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said she also believes there has been a drop-off of non-COVID-19 patients in emergency rooms, and that it’s at least partly due to social distancing.

“We see more people, of course, quarantining and staying at home and as a result relying a lot more on telehealth to manage symptoms, greater attention to medication management by patients, greater attention to the foods that they’re eating, getting enough rest, and frankly, even movement,” she said.

She also offered assurances that hospitals are equipped to handle non-COVID-19 cases safely.

“Do not be afraid, go to your ER,” Bennett said. “ERs are set up in expanded capacities. They have set up triage systems which are outside of the ER.”

Her advice continued.

“Our doctors, our nurses are waiting, they’re there to help you, and they continue to see patients with acute issues,” she said.

State officials reported Tuesday that 7,574 people were hospitalized in New Jersey for treatment of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases. Of those, 1,930 were in either critical care or intensive care units, and 1,501 were on ventilators to help with pulmonary complications that are a hallmark of serious cases of the disease.

Just over 5,000 others were being treated in what are described as surgical or medical units.

A total of 92,387 in the state have tested positive and 4,753 have died.