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While the COVID-19 pandemic is the urgent health crisis of today—affecting countless people across the globe—many others are still suffering from serious health conditions that aren’t related to this novel respiratory virus. But the number of people visiting the emergency room for non-coronavirus conditions has decreased dramatically, and many doctors like me are worried.

It’s not just in emergency departments, but urgent care and walk-in clinics, too. The question is, where are these patients going?

I worry about those with stroke, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney disease and uncontrolled diabetes. The fear is that they’re trying to wait it out because they think we’re only caring for COVID-19 patients. Many may be afraid to come to the hospital for fear of contracting the virus. But if they hold off, their conditions could become even more serious.

So let it be known: Emergency departments across the country are open and ready to safely handle any emergency scenario, not just those who have COVID-19. Hospitals are taking extreme precaution to prevent virus transmission.

At Henry Ford Health System, for example, two separate areas are set up at each ER location, one for COVID-19 patients and one for everyone else. Patients are screened twice for COVID-19 symptoms, separate healthcare workers are assigned to treat COVID-19 patients, masks are worn by all staff, patients, and visitors.

Why quick action matters

Those experiencing emergency situations risk much more by staying at home than by coming into the emergency room. Chest pain that ends up being a heart attack could result in heart failure or death, or high blood sugar levels due to diabetes could lead to a coma, kidney failure, severe dehydration or severe infections.

Another key example of the risks of waiting to get care is when someone is having symptoms of a stroke. With stroke, for every one-minute delay in treatment, about 1.9 million brain cells die, which results in an average of 10 more days' worth of recovery time from disability. That means, for a ten-minute delay, a patient might expect 100 more days of recovery, and for a 60-minute delay, that can equal almost two years of recovery—if they survive the stroke.

Some warning signs of serious, life-threatening illnesses to look out for are:

  • Weakness in the face, arms or legs. 
  • Confused or slurred speech. 
  • Loss of vision. 
  • Inability to walk. 
  • Sudden unexplained headache. 
  • Severe chest or abdominal pain. 
  • Incessant vomiting. 
  • Unconsciousness. 
  • Seizures. 
  • Severe shortness of breath or inability to breathe. 

In any of the above cases, call 911 and go to the emergency room immediately.

What if it's not quite an emergency?

If, however, you have mild symptoms of an illness or a less serious health concern (a cough, runny nose, allergies, skin rash, or urinary tract infection, for example), contacting your doctor or provider for advice is appropriate.

Your doctor may suggest a video visit or other virtual care option if an in-person visit isn’t necessary. If you do need to be seen, doctors' offices and clinics are also taking precautions to ensure that care can be provided safely, like screening everyone who enters the building for COVID-19 symptoms, requiring masks be worn and more. Whether you’re making an appointment or going to a walk-in clinic or urgent care center for a more time-sensitive need, feel free to ask the staff about any precautions being taken to calm any worries you may have. 

But when in doubt, go to the emergency room. Stroke teams, neurologists, cardiologists, trauma and orthopedic surgeons—all types of doctors and care teams are ready and equipped to treat any type of emergency, not just COVID-19.

It’s important to know that if you or a loved one is sick, emergency departments will take great care of you while also keeping you safe.

Dr. Usamah Mossallam is an emergency medicine physician, seeing patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. He also serves as the vice president and medical director of international initiatives for Henry Ford Health System.

Need care now? Learn more about options available at Henry Ford Health System. 

Want more advice from Henry Ford experts? Subscribe today to the Henry Ford LiveWell health and wellness blog to receive weekly emails of our latest tips.

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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