Early on June 3, Barb drove her husband, Steve, to Rochester General Hospital for a cardiac ablation intended to correct atrial fibrillation, a form of irregular heartbeat. But Barb could not go into the hospital with him due to regulations intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Leaving him at the door to the hospital was the most awful thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Barb recalled. “I … spent the morning in St. Pius Tenth Church with a friend, praying.”
Steve came through the procedure with flying colors and was released that afternoon, but it was a day he and Barb will not soon forget.
Their experience is just one example of the many ways the novel coronavirus has affected the health of people besides those who actually contract it.
Steve had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in November 2015, and the frequency and duration of episodes of irregular heartbeat had increased steadily.
“If the episode lasts a day or more, your heart is continuously overworking, so you feel like you are running a marathon — (you are) very tired and lack energy to do things,” Steve explained.
Steve’s cardiac ablation had been scheduled for late March but was cancelled — along with all other elective procedures — due to COVID-19. He was offered a chance to reschedule for early May but opted not to do so.
“We were still in isolation, and I did not feel comfortable going into a hospital environment,” he explained. But “after waiting about four additional weeks and not observing any increased spread of COVID-19 in our area, I felt the trade-off was worth the risk, so I contacted the hospital and scheduled my procedure.”
That’s when Steve learned Barb would not be able to accompany him into the hospital. This news was disconcerting, but the couple knew Steve needed the ablation and didn’t feel comfortable waiting any longer.
Weighing COVID-19 concerns against other health-care needs is a delicate balancing act many Americans have struggled with in recent months. Visits to physicians’ offices and other health-care practices fell 60 percent by early April, according to an Aug. 13 report from the Commonwealth Fund, which supports independent research on health-care issues. The number of visits to health-care practices began rebounding in mid-April and increased for several weeks before plateauing in mid-June. Since then, the number of visits has remained about 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels, according to the Commonwealth Fund’s report.
“The most common reason for skipping care was that the provider’s office or facility was closed or offering only limited appointments,” the Kaiser report notes, “but about half of those who say they or a family member postponed care say that feeling unsafe about visiting a medical facility during the outbreak was a reason for their decision.”
These statistics mirror what many local health-care professionals have seen in their own practices. Rochester physician Dr. Carlos Swanger said many of his patients, especially senior citizens or people with chronic diseases, were reluctant to visit his office, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Their hesitation was concerning, he said, because regular physicals and follow-ups are especially important for patients in those demographics.
St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, which provides health-care to patients without insurance, also has seen a decrease in the number of people seeking appointments, according to nurse practitioner Sue Staley.
“Many people are frightened to go out even for their primary care, especially older individuals,” Staley said. “Our big concern is people that haven’t been followed up on for their blood sugars and their high blood pressure. They’ve kind of delayed it, but now they’re starting to slowly come back.”
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Myers said most of his patients whose elective joint replacements were cancelled last spring have since had their surgeries. These patients did not suffer any ill effects from waiting a few more weeks for their joint replacements, and waiting did not increase the difficulty of the surgeries themselves, said Myers, a faculty member at the University of Rochester.
Local pediatricians worked together to keep as many children as possible from missing well-child checkups, according to Rochester pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray, who also is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children receive important vaccines at well-child visits, which also provide opportunities for doctors to ensure children are meeting developmental milestones, Murray said.
Local pediatricians also worked to share best practices for minimizing contact and make sure offices had enough personal protective equipment to safely see patients, she added.