Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why a sharp drop in 911 calls for heart attacks could be a troubling side effect of COVID-19

Ted S. Warren
Associated Press
Fire and EMS responders, some wearing masks, gowns, and gloves to protect against the transmission of the new coronavirus, respond to a medical call in Seattle on March 24, 2020.

In a normal March and April, the Seattle Fire Department receives roughly 30 to 40 calls from people having heart attacks. But this spring those calls were cut in half, to around 15.

Health officials aren't celebrating.

In fact, the trend could be a troubling side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, said the fire department's medical director, Dr. Michael Sayre.

"We're concerned that people are not calling 911 for a variety of reasons, maybe because they think that it's not safe to go to a hospital," he said.

In other words, it could be that people having heart attacks are not seeking treatment out of fear of catching the virus in a hospital. 

Another concerning trend, Sayre said, is that emergency responders are arriving at more scenes where a patient has already died, further indicating that people may be waiting longer to seek medical help.

Those "deceased on arrival" calls are up about 12 percent this year over last.

Credit Courtesy of the Seattle Fire Department
Data from the Seattle Fire Department show calls for heart attacks are down significantly compared to past years, while "deceased on arrival" calls are up slightly

"It's possible that some of the people have delayed too long and have just died at home," Sayre said.

Doctors at some Seattle hospitals have also noted a sharp decline in heart attack patients. 

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Washington, the number of people being admitted to Harborview and UW Medical Center for heart attacks and stent procedures has dropped by about 50 percent, Dr. Ravi Hira of the Cardiac Care Outcomes Assessment Program told KNKX last month.

While some hospitals have seen a similar drop in the number of stroke patients, the fire department hasn't seen that in 911 calls, Sayre said. He said he hopes to look into why, since trends in strokes and heart attacks usually mirror each other.

Sayre, who's also an emergency room doctor at UW, said hospitals are equipped to safely treat patients in emergency rooms, and fear of the coronavirus is not a reason to hesitate to call 911. 

"We're hyper-focused on reducing the risk to everybody, including ourselves," he said. 

News Coronavirus Coveragecoronavirus
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.