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According to Panacek, people might avoid going to the emergency department because they are worried about exposure to the coronavirus in a hospital setting, but he hopes to allay those fears.

Published May 12th, 2020

By Lindsay Lyle
lalyle@health.southalabama.edu

The emergency departments at University Hospital and Children’s & Women’s Hospital have seen sharp declines in patient volume since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“USA Health’s emergency departments – like all emergency departments across the country – initially were very concerned that we would be absolutely overwhelmed and inundated with patients like we saw in New York,” said Edward Panacek, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency medicine physician with USA Health. “The reality is that we’ve seen essentially the opposite. Our patient volumes here and across the country are down about 50 percent.”

As cases of COVID-19 ramped up across the United States in mid-March, patients with non-emergent symptoms were discouraged from going to the emergency department for treatment, so as not to overload hospital staff and resources.

“That’s a good thing that people listened and took the directive seriously,” said Panacek, who also serves as professor and chair of emergency medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

However, some patients have taken the order to the extreme and are not seeking emergency care, even when facing life-threatening symptoms and conditions.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing patients that are waiting too long to come into the emergency department or not coming in at all when they really should,” Panacek said. “If a patient has an emergent, acute condition, we absolutely want them to come in.”

Patients with symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure and shortness of breath, should not wait to go to the emergency department.

For patients with stroke symptoms, including numbness or paralysis, confusion, difficulty speaking or walking, time lost is brain lost.

“With many of these conditions, we have a limited time window to do the best therapy that we can – and it’s pretty short,” Panacek said. “Sometimes it’s only four and a half hours for acute stroke patients to have all the options available to them.”

Sudden abdominal pain is also a symptom that warrants a trip to the emergency department. If not treated, appendicitis can lead to a ruptured appendix within one to three days.

Another situation that could turn life threatening is an allergic reaction. Difficulty breathing or loss of consciousness are obvious reasons to go to the emergency department, but any symptoms that become severe require immediate medical attention.

Panacek said some patients with trauma injuries such as broken bones or deep cuts to the leg are not seeking treatment immediately. Delaying medical care leads to complications and infections that could have been avoided.

“Don’t delay things,” Panacek said. “We want to take the best care of patients that we can by intervening early for those conditions that are really emergency conditions.”

According to Panacek, people might avoid going to the emergency department because they are worried about exposure to the coronavirus in a hospital setting, but he hopes to allay those fears.

“The number of coronavirus patients we have at University Hospital and many hospitals that aren’t in a hotspot like New York or New Orleans is actually quite low. And we mask everyone in the ER and frequently disinfect surfaces.” he said. “Exposure to the coronavirus and those patients should not be a concern for the public.”

Panacek said USA Health’s emergency departments are safe and ready to care for patients with true emergencies. “There are a lot of safety precautions in place,” he said. “We want our patients to be safe. We want our staff to be safe. We take that very seriously.”

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