Drop In Heart Attack Rates During COVID-19 Worries Doctors

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 5:53pm
Updated: Friday, May 15, 2020 - 7:58am

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Stress on the body from diseases like the flu and COVID-19 can increase the likelihood of heart attacks. But heart attack rates have dropped since the pandemic began, and that has some doctors worried.

According to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, rates of cardiac catheterizations — the standard of care for serious heart attacks from arterial blockage — dropped 38% after the pandemic began.

The study pulled data from nine sites in the U.S. that each perform more than 100 catheterizations annually.

The results imply people suffering ST-elevation myocardial infarctions (STEMI) are either misdiagnosed, treated with drugs or, as Dr. Martha Gulati of Banner - University Medicine Heart Institute fears, avoiding hospitals due to COVID-19.

"I've had patients where I've been had to beg them on the phone, 'Please come in, these are symptoms of a heart attack. I can't manage you by phone,'" she said.

People who have lost their jobs and health care benefits in the economic wake of the pandemic might steer clear of hospitals for financial reasons.

But Gulati worries some allow fear of contracting the coronavirus keep them away.

"It's not like we've cured heart disease overnight. I wish we had," she said.

Early in the coronavirus response, medical facilities limited visits and procedures for less urgent cardiac patients. They began slowly lifting restrictions when it became clear no rapid resolution lay on the horizon.

"We've been prioritizing them by the sense of urgency — based on either changes in symptoms — or the ones that we've put off the longest," said Gulati.

Beyond relying on personal protective equipment, hospitals have adopted policies for separating COVID-19 patients and the staff who work with them from the general population. Some have COVID floors and non-COVID floors.

"I think that's really changed our hospital environment and allowed us to gently open our doors, and to try to ensure safety and that our patients feel comfortable," said Gulati.

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