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Washington state doctors puzzled by drop in heart attack, stroke patients amid COVID-19

AP File Photo
The Associated Press
In this April 2 photo, nurses at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle gather before starting their shift at the ER triage tent. Harborview and UW Medical Center have seen a 50 percent drop in heart attacks and stent procedures amid the pandemic.


Since COVID-19 arrived in Washington state, doctors have noticed a strange trend. They are seeing a drop in heart attack and stroke cases. 

Dr. Ravi Hira is a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington. He’s also director of the Cardiac Care Outcomes Assessment Program, which keeps track of all heart stent procedures and heart surgeries in Washington. 

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Washington, Hira says the number of people being admitted to Harborview and UW Medical Center for heart attacks and stent procedures has dropped by about 50 percent. 

Hira suspects that people are still experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath and other symptoms at home, and are afraid to be seen in a hospital out of fear of contracting COVID-19.

“I do believe that the heart attacks are still occurring,” Hira said. “It's very unusual that you would see an acute drop-off in heart attack rates over a few weeks.”

Similar trends have been noted in China and Italy. 

There also is a drop in the number of people in Washington state being admitted for strokes.

Dr. David Terschwell, the director of UW Medicine's Stroke Center, says he’s seen about a 30 percent drop in stroke cases. He also thinks people are avoiding hospitals. And he has another theory.

“I wondered whether people are actually being more reliable in taking their medications and doing things to generally mind their health, which actually might possibly decrease the actual rate of strokes,” Terschwell said.

Doctors say ignoring stroke and heart attack symptoms can result in permanent damage, and even death. 

Doctors across the U.S. are monitoring this drop in cases to determine if the high anxiety people are experiencing due to COVID-19 is somehow preventing people from coming into emergency rooms.  

Doctors want to send a clear message: if you are experiencing any physical symptoms that would prompt a visit to the emergency room in normal times, you should still get to the ER now. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.