Avoiding the ER because of COVID-19? Doctors warn of serious health risks

‘Patients still need to come in and not wait’

ROANOKE, Va. – Emergency room visits are down across the country during the COVID-19 outbreak, including in Roanoke and Central Virginia.

Carilion Clinic said ER visits are down 40-50%.

While less people in the ER is a good thing, Carilion’s Chair of Emergency Medicine Dr. John Burton said that doesn’t mean people aren’t experiencing medical emergencies like heart attacks or strokes.

“We hear a lot of stories about people either not seeking care or waiting too long to receive care," Dr. Burton said.

Other area hospitals are seeing the same trend. Overall, Centra’s hospitals have seen a 53% decrease in ER visits from this time last year and a 44% drop since March. LewisGale said its hospital has seen a 50% decline in the number of ER visits.

The question is why?

Burton said it could be because of the stay-at-home orders and people simply aren’t out and about as much.

“If you have a lot less people on Interstate 81 or driving the roads of our community, we’ll have less car crashes,” said Dr. Burton.

Fear of being exposed to COVID-19 could also be a factor.

“We worry a lot about people waiting too long," said Dr. Burton. “And then when they get to us in the emergency department, it’s really late in the course of their illness and there’s things that we could have done earlier that would have improved their treatment and made them better in their recovery.”

Stormie Kennington lives in Roanoke and had to go to the ER three weeks ago.

“I cut my finger when I was working. I sliced it open and I went straight there," said Kennington. "It was bleeding pretty bad.”

She said she wasn’t worried about catching the virus at the hospital, but she gets why some people might be afraid and isn’t surprised by the significant drop in ER visits.

“I mean everybody’s scared and I understand why,” Kennington said.

Local hospitals want to remind everyone that they follow strict cleaning procedures and make patients and staff wear masks and personal protective equipment to guard against COVID-19.

“Patients still need to come in and not wait and not be fearful of contracting COVID-19 when they come into a hospital or emergency department," Burton said.

So how do you know when to go to the emergency room or an urgent care center?

For non life-threatening situation, contact your primary care doctor, use telemedicine or go to an urgent care center. Those symptoms would include things like minor cuts or burns, sprains and strains, possible broken bones, rashes or mild allergic reactions.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, go to an emergency room at a hospital immediately. Those symptoms would include things like severe chest pain, severe abdominal pain, severe shortness of breath, sever bleeding, trauma, stroke symptoms or seizures.

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