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'Hospitals Are Safe': ERs Say COVID-19 Concerns Shouldn't Keep You Away If You Need Help

Jackie Hai

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis urged Coloradans who need emergency medical care to go to the emergency room.

“If you need non-COVID medical care — chest pains, dizziness — seek out that medical care. If you would have gone in January or February don’t let the fear of COVID keep you from seeking out the medical treatment you need today, because we don’t want to see more people die of other health causes because of COVID,” he said at a press conference.

Medical director for the North Colorado Medical Center Emergency Department Dr. Theron Risinger joined Colorado Edition to talk about why emergency medicine is still important, even during the coronavirus pandemic.


Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Has your emergency room seen a decrease in patients over the past month?

Yes. Significantly. We’re down about 40% - 50% on a bad day - in our volume. What we’re seeing here is similar to what we’re seeing across the country. Everybody’s emergency department volumes are significantly down.

Is there a specific illness/emergency that you’ve been seeing less of?

I would say in general, all, which is a concern from the health community at large. As a country and a healthcare system, we asked for people to stay at home. What we were asking is for people to stay at home and socially distance from a country standpoint. What we were asking for from a healthcare standpoint was, if you have a little bit of a fever that’s controlled with Tylenol or Motrin, or you have a little bit of a cough and you’re otherwise well - please stay at home and try to self-quarantine.

But what we’re seeing is that people are staying home through all emergencies. COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 alike. We’re seeing COVID-19 patients come in that are significantly hypoxic – with significantly low oxygen saturations. And when you talk to them about how long they’ve been ill, it’s been a week or maybe even 10 days that they’ve been at home. They come in so decompensated that it makes it more challenging.

And alike for non-COVID things. We’re seeing people come in that had chest pain last week, and they didn’t come in when they normally would have. They likely had a heart attack, and now they’re having some signs of congestive heart failure. There are effects from that they’re going to have to deal with for the rest of their life for not seeking care.

What are the long-term impacts or implications of this decrease? 

From a health standpoint, there are things that we need to see that we can intervene on earlier. Heart attack is a great example. If you have chest pain at home and that ends up being a heart attack that you didn’t come in for – if you would have come in, we might have been able to put a stent in your heart. We might have been able to reperfuse that muscle. We might have saved you from going into long-term congestive heart failure. Whereas if you come in after that muscle is already partially dead, because you didn’t seek help at the right time, now we’re just managing your congestive heart failure. It’s the same across all other medical conditions.

The biggest thing we’re getting at is that hospitals are safe. We’ve gone above and beyond to keep people safe. They’re safe places to go. If you would have sought emergency care two months ago, or three months ago, when we weren’t in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic, we still want you to seek emergency care.

What will the next few weeks look like for North Colorado Medical Center’s Emergency Department?

I wish I knew. I wish I had that crystal ball. Three weeks ago, we were at a sharp incline, hitting our peak. We were putting three people a day on a ventilator and into the ICU. We were seeing probably 70-30, 80-20 maybe even, where 80% of the visits were coronavirus related.  We’ve sort of flipped that on its head over the last month. I would say this week, looking at the numbers, we’re probably on a 70-30 non-coronavirus vs. coronavirus cases.

Obviously, there’s concern about lifting social distancing, and how that translates across the community. Are people going to take that the way it’s meant to be taken - which is a safer at home and stay at home if you can? Or are people going to say, “Oh well, now we don’t have a stay-at-home order,” and go the other way?

It kind of depends on what the population does. Everybody is expecting a little bit of a bump. The concern is what that bump is going to look like, and how it’s going to play out.

Across Colorado, and certainly in Northern Colorado, we have not seen enough cases to have what we would call “herd immunity” in medicine. Without herd immunity, the opportunity for there to be another peak at the same intensity is very, very high.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for May 4. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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