Staying home might be helping B.C. flatten the COVID-19 curve and stay healthy, but it could be hurting the health of some residents.
During the first four months of 2020, the number of emergency room visits in Greater Victoria hospitals – the Royal Jubilee Hospital and Victoria General Hospital – have gone down roughly 40 per cent compared to the same time period last year. ER visits at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital are down 35 per cent.
For Dr. Omar Ahmad, department head for emergency medicine and critical care at Island Health, that’s both a concern and a revelation.
“It just speaks to that, so much of what we do in the emergency room is not emergency medicine,” he said. “But there are people that are sick and they’re not coming in and they should be. And they’re not coming in because maybe they’re afraid of COVID or they are just trying to be socially responsible and avoid the emergency department.”
In a press briefing May 4, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry noted 170 ‘excess deaths’ since the pandemic began, with fatalities 2.7 per cent cent above the normal rate. While 111 of those deaths can be attributed directly to COVID-19, it’s speculated that the 60 additional deaths could be linked to people avoiding emergency rooms or in-person health care.
To those who are very sick or have serious health concerns, Ahmad says, “don’t sit at home and wait.”
“I’ve seen firsthand, patients that have been harmed because they’re afraid to come to the emergency department because they’re afraid of acquiring COVID,” he said. “Our rate of heart attacks, strokes and major infections – they should be the same as they were pre-COVID, and yet our numbers are so far down.
“It’s not like COVID is treating those conditions. There are people in the community that are suffering.”
But the decrease in ER visits also wasn’t surprising to Island emergency departments, who often see numbers drop depending on weather or holidays. Units are frequently overwhelmed with patients who have chronic health issues and can’t access – or aren’t willing to wait to be seen by – a primary care provider.
“The emergency department is an emergency department,” Ahmad said. “Our doors are always open for anyone but we also want to let people know that it’s still an emergency department and we want people who truly have emergencies or urgent issues to come in.”
Ahmad says virtual adaptations to health care implemented or bolstered during the pandemic, including online walk-in visits and the 811 HealthLink BC number – staffed with both physicians and nurses – can help people (who are not in dire need of emergency help) avoid the emergency room.
Urgent care units in James Bay, the West Shore and in Nanaimo can also help reduce the load put on hospital emergency rooms.
Ahmad said he’s grateful for the diligence of Vancouver Islanders who are staying the course and helping to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus, but he reminds the public that the emergency department is still there for emergencies.
“Don’t be afraid. We’ve kind of separated our departments for COVID and non-COVID. Come in if you need to be seen,” he said. “On the other side of the token, our emergency departments are often overwhelmed by non-emergency cases, so just use your common sense if you think it can be followed up with your primary doc or through virtual health care.”
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