November 17, 2020/Primary Care

Yes, You Can (and Should) Still Go to the ER for Emergencies During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Hospitals are taking extra precautions to keep patients safe

A healthcare provider wearing a camouflage head covering, a face mask and goggles.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic at the center of public attention, it can be easy to forget that all kinds of other medical emergencies, like heart attacks and strokes, are still happening every day. But they are. (Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack, according to CDC data.)


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Yet doctors worry that some people who need emergency medical care for illnesses not related to COVID-19 aren’t seeking it because they’re afraid of being exposed to coronavirus at the hospital.

According to studies, some hospitals have seen the number of patients showing up to their emergency departments drop – especially during the early days of the pandemic.

Some of that was to be expected, says Bradford Borden, MD, FACEP, Chairman of the Emergency Services Institute. “Not everyone is venturing out and doing all the activities they normally do,” he explains, pointing to a decline in emergency department visits for broken bones, accidents and traumas.

But it’s also worrisome. “The number of heart attack patients we’re seeing went down, but we know heart attacks aren’t going away,” he says.

For heart attacks and other medical emergencies, quick treatment can be the difference between life and death. So people should not avoid emergency care when they need it, Dr. Borden says.


Emergency departments are open and prepared to care for patients as safely as possible during the pandemic.

How hospitals are keeping EDs safe

Health systems are taking many steps to keep their patients and health care workers safe during the COVID-19 crisis. Every hospital might do things a little differently, but they’re all taking safety precautions.

At Cleveland Clinic, for example, those precautions include:

  • Visitors have been limited.
  • Patients are encouraged to get routine, nonemergency care through virtual visits, when possible.
  • All caregivers, patients and visitors wear masks.
  • In the emergency department, workers wear personal protective equipment.
  • Any patient with COVID-19 symptoms is taken to a separate, designated area for care.
  • Commonly touched surfaces are disinfected frequently.

When every minute counts

If someone is having a heart attack or stroke, being treated quickly can improve their chances of recovery.

A stroke happens when brain arteries rupture or when a blood clot cuts of blood supply to part of the brain. Life-saving medicine called recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) needs to be given within 4 ½ hours after symptoms start. Specialists can also perform emergency procedures to remove a clot or control bleeding, but these, too, must be done quickly.


The longer the brain goes without fresh blood and oxygen, the more brain cells die – and that damage is irreversible.

The same is true for a heart attack. “When you wait to get treatment, the heart muscle dies, and when it dies, then your heart doesn’t have the necessary pumping capabilities that it needs,” Dr. Borden says.

What’s an emergency?

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms of a stroke, heart attack or another medical emergency should call 911 right away. These include:

  • Accidents.
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood.
  • Head injury or any other major injury.
  • Heart attack symptoms (tightness in the chest and arm, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness).
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Poisoning or drug overdose.
  • Severe burns.
  • Severe COVID-19 symptoms, including shortness of breath.
  • Sudden and severe headache.
  • Severe, persistent abdominal pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Stroke symptoms (facial droop, arm weakness, speech difficulties).
  • Suicidal feelings.

Remember, whether COVID-19 or a health emergency, it’s always best to promptly seek the care you need. So don’t delay! ​

Learn more about our editorial process.

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