“This is a national concern that patients are worried that the hospitals, health care systems, physician offices could be more dangerous than grocery stores, hardware stores and other essential businesses,” said Dr. Balcezak, although he emphasized there was no evidence that the risks were any higher in hospitals.
In some cases, patients may be opting for virtual visits or some other alternative, said Dr. Stephen Klasko, the chief executive of Jefferson Health, who has seen the declines in visits across all of the system’s hospitals. But in other cases, patients are forgoing needed care, he said. “The real key here is virtual triage,” Dr. Klasko said, where someone who feels dizzy or has chest pain can find out if a trip to the emergency room is warranted.
Hospitals are taking numerous steps to ensure patients remain safe from infection, said Dr. William Jaquis, an emergency room doctor who is the president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Emergency rooms are not only less crowded, he said, but they have taken a number of steps to screen patients for potential infection and to make sure both patients and providers wear masks. Patients who may be infected are treated in separate areas.
Congress has responded to the hospitals’ loss of patients and resulting revenue by providing as much as $175 billion in funds to hospitals and other providers, but much of the money has gone to the largest, most profitable institutions, compared with medical centers in rural communities or those that serve low-income patients.
While emergency room visits for minor ailments like stomach pains, earaches and sprained ankles have been far fewer this year, agency officials pointed to a more disconcerting drop in the number of people who arrived with chest pain, including those experiencing heart attacks. There were also declines in children requiring emergency help for conditions like asthma.
“Health messages that reinforce the importance of immediately seeking care for symptoms of serious conditions, such as myocardial infarction, are needed,” the C.D.C. officials said. They added that people should be encouraged to reduce their potential exposure to infection by using telemedicine and other methods of triage to determine whether they need to go to the hospital.
But the officials also said the drop in emergency room visits could affect people’s ability to get care when they have no other alternative sources. People who use the emergency room “as a safety net because they lack access to primary care and telemedicine,” they said, might be disproportionately affected if they avoid seeking care because of concerns about the infection risk.”