Coronavirus Advisory: In worrisome trend, fewer seeking care for heart attacks, sponsored by Our Lady of the Lake

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Doctors are worried that fear about infection from the coronavirus may be why fewer people are seeking emergency care for heart attacks.

Typically, there’s a spike in the monthly number of heart attacks every March and April. But this year, the number of people nationwide seeking emergency care for heart attacks dropped in March, even prompting this recent New York Times headline: “Where have all the heart attacks gone?”

Our Lady of the Lake Heart & Vascular Institute physicians usually handle between 30 and 40 heart alerts per month, but in March they saw just 13, the fewest in any single month dating back at least three years.

“Even in our clinic it’s been unusually quiet,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hyde, an interventional cardiologist with HV&I. “The other day my nurse asked, ‘Where are all the phone calls?’”

It’s part of a national trend.

A recent informal poll of cardiologists nationwide found a decline of between 40% and 60% in heart-related hospital admissions, despite an anticipated increase expected to result from COVID-19 respiratory infections, Yale medical school professor Dr. Harlan Krumolz wrote in The New York Times.

There might be any number of explanations.

For example, people aren’t going to restaurants and having big meals rich in fats and salt, which can be a trigger for heart attacks. Or, they’re experiencing less stress and anxiety because so many people are now working from home, or they’ve suddenly gotten healthier and more active with yard work and exercise.

But the more likely cause, and what worries cardiologists, is that people are still experiencing heart attack symptoms at the same rate, only fewer of them are seeking care for fear of developing COVID-19.

To those people, the message is clear, Dr. Hyde said: Call 9-1-1.

“If you or someone you know suddenly has neurological symptoms, chest tightness or pain, or difficulty breathing, it’s absolutely critical to call an ambulance,” he said.

The risk of suffering permanent damage or death from a stroke or heart attack are too serious to ignore.

Our Lady of the Lake, like most hospitals, has put in place safeguards and procedures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus so other patients can continue to receive care safely. For example, they’re kept separate from patients suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19, and they’re cared for by separate medical staff.

One of Dr. Hyde’s recent patients, 50-year-old Chris Gautreau of Gonzales, did seek emergency heart care despite prevailing fears about COVID-19, and he’s grateful he did.

Gautreau, who works as a safety officer for a transportation company, woke up struggling to breathe early one recent Saturday morning. No matter how deeply he inhaled he couldn’t seem to get enough air.

“I told my wife ‘Call 9-1-1, I’m having a heart attack,’” he recalled.

EMTs in full protective gear against the coronavirus arrived shortly after 5 am. After quickly connecting him to a heart monitor, Gautreau said the EMT called out to the driver, “‘It’s OK, he’s only having a heart attack.’ I totally understood what he meant.”

At the HV&I, Dr. Hyde and his team promptly cleared two near complete blockages in Gautreau’s heart, and by 7 am he was resting in his hospital room.

“I told Dr. Hyde ‘I feel so much better I could walk out of here,” Gautreau recalled.

The next morning he did. And the day after that he was back at work at 7 am.

Gautreau said he’s glad and grateful he sought emergency treatment. “The longer you wait the more damage you can have to the heart muscle,” he said. “Otherwise at some point there’s not that much Dr. Hyde can do for you.”