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Montgomery County hospital reports E.R. visits decline 50 percent due to coronavirus concerns

Doctors said patients with problems beyond coronavirus, like stroke or heart attack, are waiting too long to come the hospital because they fear getting coronavirus.

OLNEY, Md. — It’s a storyline that flips the script on coronavirus cases overwhelming hospitals, with figures from MedStar Montgomery Medical Center showing a dramatic decline in patients admitted to the emergency department.

Since the pandemic took hold in mid-March, the Olney hospital reported its overall E.R. patient population dropped by 50%, an unexpected decline as Maryland coronavirus cases climbed.

But the chair of MedStar Montgomery’s emergency department said the steep decline could be attributed to patients afraid of visiting the E.R. – now fearful of contracting coronavirus.

"Patients are avoiding the emergency department because they’re afraid to come here," Dr. Katherine Byrd said, referring to trends and patient volumes seen since the week of March 15. "What we’re seeing as a result, is that patients who have other problems, like strokes or heart attacks, are waiting pretty late to come in and they’re scared to come in." 

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But waiting, rather than heading directly to the hospital, could have critical consequences.

Byrd described stroke and cardiac patients she’s seen firsthand, whose conditions only worsened. They stayed at home weighing limited options, or even waited in vain for symptoms to go away.

"I had one patient who had lots of cardiac risk factors, and he had been having chest pains for a week," Byrd said. "He didn’t want to come to the hospital, he tried going to his doctor, but his doctor’s office was closed. By the time he got to me, he was definitely having a heart attack." 

Byrd described MedStar Montgomery’s typical E.R. patient volume consisting of about 95 patients per day, compared to 45 or 50 patients now.

"Of those patients, they are extremely sick and they’re waiting a long time to come here," she said. "And when they do, it’s not your typical ankle sprain, maybe you can go home. It’s people who are critically ill." 

Dr. Byrd stressed that the emergency department is safe, and there is minimal risk of contracting coronavirus simply by walking through the front doors.

"We’re providing masks for everyone coming in, it doesn’t matter what your problem is, you’re getting a mask," Byrd said. "We’re isolating patients who have potential COVID symptoms early, so it’s a safe place to visit." 

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