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
Nurse with goggles, face mask and gloves

With COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, it can be easy to forget that heart attacks, strokes and all kinds of other medical emergencies are still happening every day.

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But they are. (Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack, according to CDC data.)

Yet doctors worry that some people who need emergency medical care for non-COVID-related illnesses aren’t taking steps to get it because they’re afraid of being exposed to coronavirus at the hospital. Reports from many parts of the country tell the story that fewer people are showing up to emergency departments during the COVID-19 crisis.

Some of that is to be expected due to stay-at-home mandates, says Bradford Borden, MD, FACEP, Chairman of the Emergency Services Institute.

“People are not venturing out and doing what 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 has gone down dramatically, but we know heart attacks aren’t going away,” he says.

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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 safely during the pandemic.

How hospitals are keeping EDs safe

Lessons from COVID-19 hotspots in China and New York have helped health systems establish best practices for keeping their patients and workers safe during the COVID-19 crisis. So while every hospital might be a little different, they’re all taking safety precautions.

At Cleveland Clinic, for example, the following protocols are in place:

  • Visitors have been limited.
  • Patients are encouraged to get routine, nonemergency care through virtual visits, when possible.
  • Everyone who enters the building has their temperature taken to check for a fever.
  • Caregivers wear masks. All patients and visitors are also given cloth masks to wear to help prevent spread of the virus from anyone who has symptoms as well as those who might be infected but don’t have symptoms.
  • In the emergency department, workers wear protective masks and goggles.
  • Any patient with COVID-19 symptoms is taken to a separate, designated area for care.

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.

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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.

If you have severe symptoms of COVID-19, it’s best to call ahead before going to the emergency department so that staff can prepare to get you where you need to go as safely as possible.

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