We know that you need accurate and up-to-date information about the effects of the coronavirus in the state and our region. The Gainesville Times is making articles directly related to public safety available free to non-subscribers as a public service. Please consider supporting our work by subscribing to The Gainesville Times.
The fear of COVID-19 is powerful enough to deter people from seeking crucial medical attention.
Dr. Mohak Davé, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s chief of emergency medicine, said like the rest of the country, Northeast Georgia Health System has seen its volume of emergency department admissions drop by 50% during the pandemic.
He said the decline began in early March and is now slowly recovering.
Dr. Ryan Whitney, chairman of the Heart Center of NGMC, said he has seen the health system’s cardiac patient numbers quickly decline, specifically with heart attacks.
By mid-April, he said the amount of people coming in with heart attacks decreased by around 38%.
“In the 17 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen this type of precipitous drop in heart attack volume,” Whitney said. “Never a plummet and almost 40%. It’s unprecedented.”
In the cardiology department, Whitney said he has heard concerns about patients not wanting to visit the hospital because they’re afraid of catching COVID-19. He said a majority of this population is made up of senior citizens or those who already have a coronary disease.
He regularly assures them that NGHS takes the highest level of precautions to protect not only its patients, but the staff. This includes medical workers wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and requiring all patients to wear masks, even when being transported by emergency medical services.
But during the month of May, another unexpected shift occurred.
Jason Grady, NGHS regional STEMI coordinator, said the volume of heart attack patients has jumped 20% higher than the normal rate.
“What we’re seeing is patients that have waited for days or weeks, when they should’ve come in earlier,” Grady said. “We are seeing heart attack patients that are much sicker than they have been in the past. The acuity levels increase.”
As people begin to trickle back into the emergency rooms, Davé said some patients with simple infections, who didn’t receive timely medical care, now have gangrene. He has also witnessed a rise in psychiatric complaints involving depression and anxiety.
“I think in the midst of this pandemic, the perception of risk of coming to a hospital setting was much larger than the benefit of the treatment,” Davé said.
On May 5 NGHS announced its Emergency Cardiac Care Center designation, which Davé describes as an “organized system of care to improve outcomes.”
Arriving at a critical time for the health system, Whitney said the designation holds hospitals to certain standards and allows people to understand what each medical center offers.
“One of the problems we potentially have are EMS and hospitals unsure of which patients go to which facility,” he said. “That can delay care.”
The designation, which was signed into law in May 2017, now allows Georgia medical centers to distinguish themselves as one of three levels of Emergency Cardiac Care Centers.
Level 1 hospitals, like NGMC Gainesville, can perform open heart surgery and interventional cardiac catheterizations; Level 2 hospitals like NGMC Braselton can implement interventional cardiac catheterizations; and Level 3 hospitals can stabilize patients until they are transported to a Level 1 or 2 center.
NGHS was the first health system in Georgia to receive this designation.
Whitney said patients around Hall County and outside of the area, are already beginning to experience the benefits of the title.
Davé, Grady and Whitney encourage people who are having chest pains or other serious medical symptoms to not hesitate to seek out emergency care from the hospital. Depending on a patient’s condition, NGHS medical workers can quickly assess the level of care needed to prevent death or other long-term complications.
“Just because you’re scared of the virus, it’s not worth dying at home and not seeking care,” Whitney said.