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An unintended, yet still dangerous, COVID-19 impact: Those with life-threatening illness avoiding ER

Swedish Medical Center shows empty ER
Posted at 4:56 PM, Apr 14, 2020

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — With so many hospitals preparing for coronavirus patients, emergency rooms are sitting empty.

And while that might seem good, doctors say there's actually a dangerous trend of waiting too long for emergency care.

Dr. Dylan Luyten, an emergency medicine physician and medical director at Swedish Medical Center’s emergency department in Englewood, said it's astounding how empty the ER is right now.

"You would see ambulance crews coming down the hall,” Dr. Luyten said, while walking through the ER. “You'd see stretchers in the hallway - full of patients who don't yet have a room."

Clinical nurse coordinator Erin Kunkel said instead they have plenty of capacity.

“I’m a little concerned that people who still need emergency care are not coming to the emergency room," Kunkel said.

What they're noticing is people with serious health issues like heart attacks, strokes and uncontrolled diabetes are waiting — sometimes days — because they're either scared to go to the ER fearing they'll get coronavirus, or they've heard so many times they shouldn't go to keep from overwhelming the system.

"Which is really not true,” Luyten said. “We have a very streamlined process of sorting patients who we believe are at risk of having coronavirus. They're treated in a separate area, separate rooms."

Denny Fouts is one of the lucky ones.

"I remember being in the stroke ambulance," she said of a recent stroke she suffered while at home loading the dishwasher.

"She was loading the silverware and just stopped,” said Denny’s husband, Rod. “She fell over the chair in the breakfast nook and ended up on the floor."

Rod immediately called 911 and UCHealth's Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit arrived in minutes. The drug tPA was administered in the unit right in her driveway as soon as they were able to confirm it was a blood clot. The drug is a powerful clot-busting drug that must be administered within a four-hour window of any episode in order to be effective.

"They said she was a miracle lady," Rod said. “She just uplifted the entire staff at the hospital.”

"It was incredible care," Denny said. “From the doctors to the nurses, even the housekeeping staff.”

"Time is really of the essence,” said Dr. Michelle Leppert, a neurologist with UCHealth who treated Fouts. “This was true before COVID. And just the faster we can get a patient seen and get care to them, the better the outcome is."

Dr. Luyten said the empty ER also suggests we are flattening the curve.

"We believe our COVID volume probably peaked a couple days ago, maybe even a week ago," Luyten said.

And as for those life-threatening concerns – doctors agree – don’t delay.

“We’ve seen more and more people who delay treatment,” Leppert said. “That’s very concerning. Stroke is treatable, but it needs to be treated very early.”

"The reality is our system has been stretched a little bit, but not even close to bending or let alone broken,” Luyten said. “Our hospitals are not overwhelmed. Our hospitals are not turning people away because we don’t have resources. Our hospitals are here for you.”

“We’re still here and we are staffed and we are ready,” Kunkel said.