More p eople die of heart disease and cancer in the U.S. daily than of COVID infections.

If you have uncontrolled hypertension, you are still at risk for a stroke.

Yes, that chest pain with exertion could be a heart attack.

Blood sugars in the 400s are an imminent coma.

Bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract or abdominal pain needs investigation.

A urinary tract infection in an elderly person perhaps escalating a worsening confusion can quickly lead to a full-blown systemic infection, shock and death.

As UTMB and physicians around the country have shifted to the telehealth model due to concerns about social distancing and the risks of interpersonal contact, we see increased concerns from our patients about getting needed face to face care. This is understandable as rapid diagnosis and treatments for COVID are still evolving.

We do know the same health risks we faced prior to COVID are still out there. In fact, those most at risk for serious infection are those with conditions like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, the older patient and those with compromised immune system.

Emergency room visits for heart attacks have dropped 50 percent or more at some hospitals. Are people no longer having heart attacks or are they just ignoring them out of paranoia from seeking care? You can guess the answer.

Here’s an example. For no good reason I can yet decipher, one of my interns and I were scheduled with a telehealth phone consult for a patient from another part of the state. His body was rejecting his heart transplant. He was on a home medication drip usually reserved for ICU care. His diabetes was also way out of control. This was not something to deal with over the phone. He needed to be seen post-haste. Because the immunosuppressant drugs he was taking put him at higher risk of COVID, he didn’t want to go out to a doctor despite our urging.

We have had phone visits with patients with chronic lung disease that is getting worse, unstable heart failure, you name it, who are reluctant to seek appropriate in-person care. Collateral, downstream damage is a bigger risk than COVID.

Hospitals everywhere like UTMB are taking extraordinary measures: systematic screening, designated isolation rooms and units for patients with diagnosed/suspected COVID-19, visitor restrictions, universal masking, daily temperature checks, the use of personal protective equipment and increased disinfection procedures.

As UTMB gradually reopens our clinical facilities and services in the upcoming weeks, hopefully we’ll get over this hurdle of self-defeating fear of getting needed care. The first few hours are critical for a person with a heart attack or stroke.

Be safe, but be sensible. Make the right decision.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina joined UTMB’s Department of Family Medicine in 1996. He is a professor of family medicine and currently holds the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professorship in Integrative Medicine.

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