COVID-19 fears lead to unintended impact on ERs, death rate

In Milwaukee, data show the COVID-19 pandemic is likely keeping the sick from seeking emergency care -- something that is handcuffing doctors, nurses and other health care providers.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across Wisconsin, health experts say such unintended consequences of the pandemic are having a serious impact on the death rate -- specifically in emergency rooms.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers across the country clamped down -- canceling surgeries, closing department and limiting visitors as a precaution.

Ascension Wisconsin Emergency Room Dr. Beth Griffin said such efforts could explain a sharp decline in the number of patients going to the ER.

"Certainly, we saw our ER volumes drop not only in Wisconsin but nationally, up to 50% in some areas," Griffin said.

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Now, despite significant safety plans in place and the return of those services, Griffin said they're still seeing a 20% drop in ER visits in Milwaukee.

"We are seeing that some communities that were hit a little bit harder might be a little more fearful of coming back in," said Griffin.

That fear is what Griffin and Ascension Wisconsin are trying to fight because even the patients who do go to the ER still seem hesitant to do so, and it's evident in their condition.

Ascension St. Francis Hospital

Ascension St. Francis Hospital

"Unfortunately, when people delay care and don't come in initially with those concerning symptoms, we're seeing some more lasting effects and more complications than we typically would," Griffin said.

It means that health providers have fewer opportunities to provide the best care possible. For example, minor chest pain can become much worse just at home.

"If they had come in right when they started having symptoms, we could've avoided (that)," said Griffin.

Health professionals are urging patients not to avoid the emergency room out of anxiety. 

That message is also the focus of an American Heart Association campaign that is calling on anyone feeling sick to seek necessary care right away.

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Overall, Ascension Wisconsin said it not only has the capacity to care for people in need of immediate, emergency care, but that it can do so safely -- with sanitation, personal protective equipment and other protocols in place.

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The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) on Wednesday, Oct. 14 reported 3,107 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the cumulative number of cases to 158,578.

COVID-19 alternate care facility opens at State Fair Park

Patients who receive care at the alternate care facility will be there for approximately 3-6 days and will not be charged for their stay.