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Avoiding care during the pandemic could mean life or death

John M. Glionna, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

These days, Los Angeles acting teacher Deryn Warren balances her pain with her fear. She's a bladder cancer patient who broke her wrist in November. She still needs physical therapy for her wrist, and she's months late for a cancer follow-up.

But Warren won't go near a hospital, even though she says her wrist hurts every day.

"If I go back to the hospital, I'll get COVID. Hospitals are full of COVID people," says Warren, a former film director and author of the book "How to Make Your Audience Fall in Love With You."

"Doctors say, 'Come back for therapy,' and my answer is, 'No, thank you.'"

Many, many patients like Warren are shunning hospitals and clinics. The coronavirus has so diminished trust in the U.S. medical system that even people with obstructed bowels, chest pain and stroke symptoms are ignoring danger signs and staying out of the emergency room, with potentially mortal consequences.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency room visits nationwide fell 42% in April, from a mean of 2.1 million a week to 1.2 million, compared with the same period in 2019.

 

A Harris poll on behalf of the American Heart Association found roughly 1 in 4 adults experiencing a heart attack or stroke would rather stay at home than risk getting infected with the coronavirus at the hospital. These concerns are higher in Black (33%) and Hispanic (41%) populations, said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, president of the American Heart Association and a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University.

Perhaps even more worrisome is the drastic falloff of routine screening, especially in regions hit hard by the virus. Models created by the medical research company IQVIA predict delayed diagnoses of an estimated 36,000 breast cancers and 19,000 colorectal cancers due to COVID-19's scrambling of medical care.

At Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California, mammograms have dropped as much as 90% during the pandemic. "When you see only 10% of possible patients, you're not going to spot that woman with early-stage breast cancer who needs a follow-up biopsy," said Dr. Burton Eisenberg, executive medical director of the Hoag Family Cancer Institute.

Before the epidemic, Eisenberg saw five melanoma patients a week. He hasn't seen any in the past month. "There's going to be a lag time before we see the results of all this missed care," he said. "In two or three years, we're going to see a spike in breast cancer in Orange County, and we'll know why," he said.

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