BILLINGS — Lead emergency room doctors at Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Health Care have recently seen patients wait days to seek care for major illnesses like a heart attack or stroke because they think they don't want to come to the hospital for fear of COVID-19.
Two Billings ER doctors urged the community Tuesday that the hospitals are safe and to seek the medical care they need if they suffer a chronic or life-threatening disease.
“We are seeing people come in maybe two or three days after they’ve had a stroke, which is too late for some of the preventions that we have for them. Or people who are probably having a heart attack who are staying at home," said Dr. Nathan Allen, emergency medicine director at Billings Clinic.
At St. Vincent, the emergency room is seeing 50 percent less people than usual, according to Dr. Rich Lammers, St. Vincent Healthcare emergency department medical director.
Part of the drop in patients could be attributed to less people being out-and-about and therefore not getting sick, in car crashes, or otherwise hurting themselves, Allen said. But some still aren't going to the emergency room when needed.
The doctors wanted to send a message saying the hospitals are still open for people who need them.
“The health system is not closed because of COVID-19. Your doctors' offices are open. They’re there for you. The emergency departments are open. And the ER is safe to come to. We all have put a lot of work and effort into our policies and procedures to make sure that everybody stays safe in our hospitals," Lammers said.
Both of the doctors said they've seen a drop off in patients with chronic illnesses seeking treatment. They said people should keep on top of treatment for their conditions, so symptoms don't snowball and make the conditions worse.
"A lot of their chronic medical conditions that they may not be following up with their doctors as much about. Our diabetics, our asthmatics, our chronic lung patients. They might be suffering through that at home and maybe staying at home too long so those things have really fallen over by the time they show up to us. And we’re all kind of chasing our tails with them when they do finally show up,” Lammers said.
The professionals said they suspect people may be more reluctant to come to the hospital for fear of infection from COVID-19. They said the hospitals have been following procedures to keep everyone safe.
"We all have put a lot of work and effort into our policies and procedures to make sure that everybody stays safe in our hospitals. No one should have a fear coming to the emergency department when they need to, or they feel that they need to," Lammers said.
Part of those procedures include hospital staff wearing more personal protective equipment like masks than before. The hospitals have also put up temperature-check stations at all entrances to screen staff and patients before they enter the doors.
“We’re working hard to keep ourselves safe and healthy so that we can do everything we need to for the public. But then also taking initiative when visitors and patients are coming in as well and making sure they they are safe and protected," Lammers said.
Both doctors agreed that social distancing and shelter in place orders have been working to flatten the curve of COVID-19. They said there's data to back that claim.
“You can really track almost down to the day when the case counts started to decrease from when we put the social-distancing measures into place. And then again from the stay-at-home order. We know this is working because terrible things aren’t happening every day in our community," Allen said.
Lammers said you can't disregard the economic and social suffering happening to people now. But he said the measures to slow the spread were not an overreaction.
"I think really having an open view to everything that’s going on and an understanding of where health care is coming from, where our citizens are coming from. It’s really important to take all of that in. And I do not think at all that this was an overreaction. I think what we’re seeing is the really good benefit of the lack of death and physical suffering in our community because of our social distancing and all of these policies that we’ve put in place," Lammers said.