SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For years it's been one of the leading causes of death, a critical condition plaguing nearly every corner of the country. Every hour, seven people die from heart disease in the state but since the new coronavirus pandemic, some Northern California hospitals are admitting fewer heart attack patients than before.
The trend, an unexpected byproduct of COVID-19, is one of the main findings in a new study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente who measured the change in hospital admissions for heart attacks.
The results, published as a research letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, show that although California avoided the kind of dire outbreaks seen in Italy and New York, the specter of infection may have kept people away from the hospital.
The rate of hospitalization for heart attacks was nearly cut in half, falling by 48% from the beginning of January until mid-April. The study used data from Kaiser Permanente's 21 medical centers in Northern California and the Central Valley and measured the rate weekly.
"We found as dramatic a reduction in heart attacks in Northern California as in places where the pandemic hit much harder like Northern Italy," said Dr. Matthew Solomon, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center and lead author of the study.
"It seems people had as strong a reaction, avoiding the hospitals for acute emergencies as in the places that were devastated by COVID-19."
The decline started after the first death in Northern California was reported on March 4 -- believed to be a Placer County man in his 70s at the time. During the same week, deaths in a Washington state nursing home were mounting and the scale of an outbreak on a Princess Cruises ship was still unknown.
From January to March 3, Kaiser Permanente hospitals saw 1,051 patients for heart attacks, about 44 more patients compared to the year before. During the next four weeks, however, the regional health system 453 heart attack patients and about 175 compared to hospital volume in 2019.
The results are not easily explained. Solomon said there does not appear to be any relationship between the decline in hospitalization and the severity of the pandemic since California largely dodged the worse case scenarios. Although the published study did not include any test of potential links to the pandemic's severity.
Other theories don't hold up well either. Solomon said some have theorized that the decline is the result of people being less physically active or maybe they have fewer stressors at home.