Heart attack patients ‘fearful’ of seeking medical help amid COVID crisis

• Drop in patient attendances started just before the second lockdown came into force
• Latest figures reveal it is probably continuing through third lockdown

Data analysis is revealing a second sharp drop in the number of people admitted to hospital in England with acute heart failure or a heart attack.

The decline began in October, as the numbers of COVID-19 infections began to surge ahead of the second lockdown, which came into force in early November.

The findings, from a research group led by the University of Leeds, have been revealed in a letter to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (An embargoed copy of the letter can be accessed from this link.)

The decline – 41 percent fewer people attending with heart failure and 34 percent with a heart attack compared to pre-pandemic levels – is approaching the size of that observed during the first wave of the pandemic. The researchers believe the drop in people seeking emergency medical help for cardiovascular emergences in the first wave of the pandemic may have contributed to more than 2,000 excess deaths in England and Wales.

In the letter to the journal, the scientists note: “The second dip appears of similar magnitude to that of the first, and signals that the public are fearful of attending hospital despite having medical emergencies…”

Chris Gale, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Leeds, who supervised the data analysis, said: “I am afraid that we are seeing a re-run of one of the preventable tragedies of the first wave – people were either too afraid to go to hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19 or were not referred for treatment.

“The message to patients needs to be clear. If they experience symptoms of a heart attack or acute heart failure, they need to attend hospital. These are unforgiving medical emergencies. With the right help, people can recover from them. But if patients delay or avoid treatment, their will suffer life-limiting complications – or they will die.”

Dr Jianhua Wu, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, led the analysis. He said: “One of the worrying aspects of our research is that the decline we have seen since October may not have yet bottomed out. Inevitably there is a fear that will result in deaths that perhaps could have been avoided.” 

Professor Simon Ray, President of the British Cardiovascular Society, added: “This research illustrates again the importance of the message that other medical problems don’t stop because of COVID and that people with serious problems like heart attack and acute heart failure still need to be seen and treated urgently to prevent death or long-term ill health.”

The first lockdown

Patient attendances began to drop ahead of the first lockdown, from 23 March 2020, and reached their lowest point in early April. By mid April, there was a 54 percent drop in people attending hospital emergency units with heat failure, and 32 percent reduction with a heart attack. Patient numbers did rebound towards the latter half of June but did not return fully to pre-pandemic levels.

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