In a finding that highlights another health consequence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, researchers report that the risk of dying from heart disease increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns last spring, likely because people were too scared to go to the hospital.
But the dangers of not seeking treatment for a medical emergency far outweigh that of catching Covid-19, especially now that precautions are in place to make hospitals and health care facilities safer for everyone, said study author Dr. Rishi Wadhera, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Wadhera and his colleagues culled data from the US National Center for Health Statistics to compare death rates from heart-related causes in the United States after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic – mid-March to June 2020 – to the 11 weeks before the pandemic and also to the same period in 2019.
Deaths from heart disease including heart attacks and those related to complications of high blood pressure increased by 11 percent and 17 percent, respectively, compared to 2019, the study showed.
The increases were greatest in areas that were the hardest hit by the pandemic: New York City saw a 139-percent spike in deaths due to heart disease and a 164-percent rise in deaths related to high blood pressure.
Other areas that saw spikes in heart-related deaths during the spring included New York state, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois, the study found.
“Patients with cardiovascular conditions like heart attacks – which typically require urgent treatment – avoided seeking care at hospitals due to fear of contracting the virus,” Wadhera said.
But there may be more to it, he noted. “People with cardiovascular conditions may have faced challenges in accessing timely care, or experienced delays in receiving cardiovascular procedures, simply because hospitals in hard-hit regions were overwhelmed and strained.”
And “it’s possible that some of these deaths reflect the cardiovascular complications of undiagnosed Covid-19 because testing was quite limited during the initial surge of cases in the United States,” Wadhera noted.
Wadhera added that he hopes that with public health messaging, patients with urgent medical conditions become less fearful of seeking medical care and hospitals are better equipped to handle any surge in patients.
A related international study spanning 108 countries found fewer people underwent their scheduled heart-related diagnostic tests during the pandemic.
These tests included heart imaging exams, stress tests and coronary angiography, a procedure that can detect blockages in your heart arteries. The number of these tests decreased by 42 percent from March 2019 to March 2020, and by 64 percent from March 2019 to April 2020.
These declines were even greater in countries with fewer resources, the study found.
“These findings may be due to a diversion of resources to Covid-19 care, limitations in the availability of personal protective equipment, and fears of engaging with the health care system during a pandemic peak,” said study author Dr. Andrew Einstein, director of nuclear cardiology, cardiac CT and cardiac MRI at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, in New York City. CURRENTPH