Fear. Fear has gripped us all in one way or another during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns about COVID-19 encourage people to stay physically distant, especially when and in those places we think the virus may be present, and those fears may be keeping sick people away from hospitals.

An April study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that admissions for a serious type of heart attack known as STEMI dropped 38% after the pandemic hit. There are also reports that admissions for stroke are down considerably. In recent reports, people have specifically cited coronavirus worries as the reason for avoiding hospitals.

As a neurologist specializing in the treatment of stroke, I am seriously concerned about the possible implications when a patient is too afraid to seek medical treatment for a stroke-related emergency. It is critical to diagnose a stroke as early as possible because potential treatments for many types of stroke are absolutely dependent on time. In many cases that time window is brief. Immediate recognition and treatment may minimize the long-term effects of a stroke and even prevent death.

I know firsthand the plans many hospitals and EMS crews have in place to keep potentially contagious patients away from others and to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Calling 911 will ensure that you have the best possible chance to beat a heart attack or stroke. Emergency medical responders can assess symptoms, begin treatment in the ambulance, and transport the patient to the most appropriate hospital, if necessary.

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a stroke or heart attack. A stroke occurs when normal blood flow in the brain is interrupted. A stroke caused by a blockage of blood flow is called an ischemic stroke, making up about 85% of all strokes in the United States. Stroke has many controllable risk factors. I recommend everyone commit to a healthier lifestyle by getting more physically active, eating a healthier diet, quitting smoking and getting regular check-ups. These lifestyle changes help to lower your risk of stroke and will help manage risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

As many people in Vermont are facing extended time at home and alone, it is possible that heart attack or stroke warning signs may go unnoticed. It is important to regularly check on those who live alone and those who are at greater risk. Speaking on the phone or video chats can give important clues about common stroke warning signs.

May is Stroke Awareness Month and the American Stroke Association wants the public to learn the signs and symptoms of stroke F.A.S.T (F- face drooping, A – arm weakness, S- speech difficulties, T- time to call 9-1-1). Stroke is preventable, treatable and beatable. For more information, please visit Stroke.Org.

We all face new realities due to the pandemic, but we should not let this stand in the way of seeking proven and effective care for other healthcare emergencies. The medical community is prepared and ready to help.

Fear can be powerful but let me remind us all of another powerful emotion. Hope.

Christopher Commichau, MD is Director of Cerebrovascular Diseases & Neurocritical Care at University of Vermont Medical Center. He writes on behalf of the American Heart Association.

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