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Hospital emergency room visits have plummeted across Northern Colorado in spite of — or maybe because of — the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors say people are needlessly putting themselves at risk.
Whether out of fear or altruism, too many people are waiting too long to seek treatment for non-coronavirus issues such as heart attacks, strokes, appendicitis and other chronic illnesses that become more difficult to treat or life-threatening over time.
Emergency room doctors say it’s an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am positive patients are afraid to come in for care,” said Dr. Richard Zane, chief innovation officer for UCHealth and chair of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Others, he said, don’t want to add to a perceived crush of patients flooding hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19. The reality — from Greeley to Fort Collins — is far from that perception with nearly empty lobbies and no wait times.
“It’s really clear people are staying home when they should be coming to the hospital,” Zane said.
Doctors are now sending this message: Do not wait. Emergency rooms are open, ready and safe for patients who need them.
What the numbers tell us
Across its system, UCHealth emergency department visits have dropped 40% to 50% in recent weeks and visits to its urgent care centers are down 55% to 60%, Zane said.
UCHealth’s Northern Colorado hospitals, including Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland and its new hospital in Greeley, have seen visitation drop slightly less, between 35% and 40%, said Dr. Jamie Teumer, an ER doctor at Poudre Valley Hospital.
With 64 emergency department beds, PVH is treating maybe 30 people during its peak times, Teumer said. “The irony is we are less busy than we were before. The beauty is if you come to the (emergency department) now you will get through quicker than normal because there are fewer people.
“There is definitely a decrease in the number of people versus what people would think would be an increase. But we are seeing sicker people.”
Similarly among Banner Health’s emergency departments in Greeley, Loveland and Fort Collins, visits have dropped 22% to 39% compared to the same time last year.
“We are seeing tremendous increases on resources within the hospital (from COVID-19 patients) but not necessarily in the emergency department,” said Dr. Theron Risinger, medical director at North Colorado Medical Center and a freestanding emergency department in Greeley owned by Banner Health.
“The majority of time we have a completely empty lobby,” he said. NCMC’s emergency department, with 41 beds, is seeing between 55 and 75 patients per day.
Patients coming in are more critically ill because they’re waiting to see a doctor, he said.
“If you let a chronic disease or illness go or ignore blurry vision or chest pain, typically those (symptoms) continue to manifest and continue to get worse,” Risinger said.
At UCHealth, emergency heart catheterizations and interventional stroke care has declined along with emergency department visits, which resulted in UCHealth emergency departments treating more cardiac arrests last week than the whole of March, according to Zane.
That means people with cardiac symptoms suffered at home rather than go to the ER where an emergency heart catheterization could have resolved symptoms, he said. Instead, they ended up in the emergency department in full cardiac arrest.
Patients “didn’t want to overwhelm or bother us,” Zane said. “I promise you, you are not bothering us. We are ready and able and want to take care of you. Do not hesitate to come in.”
Zane and Risinger said every precaution is being taken to protect emergency room patients and staff from being exposed to coronavirus.
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Symptomatic patients in both health systems are directed to specific areas and treated in special rooms away from other patients; all staff wears personal protective equipment and masks. “The probability of catching COVID-19 at the (emergency department) is lower than going to the grocery store,” Zane said.
If you are are having chest pain, shortness of breath, severe abdominal pain, stroke symptoms or weakness, fever with headache, or other symptoms, you should go to the emergency department, he said. Even gall bladder or bowel problems, if left untreated, “become an infinitely more complicated surgery and post-operative recovery.
“Every day we have examples of patients who waited too long,” ending in more critical or deadly results.
Zane said he expected a decline in certain ambulatory conditions as the pandemic scared people away from emergency rooms but was not prepared for the decrease in emergency issues.
“People who are actually suffering are not coming in,” he said.
Northern Colorado emergency room patient volume
- North Colorado Medical Center: -28.2%
- Banner Fort Collins Medical Center: -22%
- Banner North Colorado Emergency Care: -39.3%
- McKee Medical Center: -31.4%
- Poudre Valley Hospital: -35-40%
- UCHealth: -40-50%*
*UCHealth did not provide a breakdown by hospital.
Need more information?
If you can’t decide whether to go to the ER, Dr. Richard Zane said UCHealth has virtual emergency health care visits available 24 hours a day at uchealth.org/services/virtual-urgent-care/
Banner Health recently opened an urgent clinic in Loveland for those not suffering from COVID-19 symptoms. The clinic at 2555 E. 13th St, Suite 110, Loveland, is open for most common illnesses and injuries, including broken bones, insect bites and lacerations. It is not intended to treat patients with respiratory complaints such as COVID-19.
Source: UCHealth and Banner Health systems
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