'Sudden deaths' stem from fear of going to ER, HFD says

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Health officials are raising a concern about people either not going to the hospital when they should because of the fear of contracting COVID-19, or people are impacted by the virus itself.

They're calling these "sudden deaths."

The Houston Fire Department said they are responding to more calls where the patient is dead on arrival. They said they've seen an increase since April and an even bigger increase since June 1 when compared to the past two previous years.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, there's a concern that people are afraid to go to the hospital when they have a medical emergency.

"We're hearing people aren't calling 911 because they're afraid to go to the hospital because they think that's where the virus is," said Chief Samuel Pena. "If you're having a heart attack, you're probably a lot safer at the emergency room than you are in your living room."

A graph from the department shows DOAs from 2018, 2019 and 2020. You see an increase in DOA calls starting in April and especially in June. Chris Souders, the Associate Medical Director for the Houston Fire Department, says last week they responded to 88 DOAs, that is close to double what it was from the same week the year before.

So why the change?

"It's a fear factor of going to the hospital. People are afraid if they go to the emergency room, or even if it's just a cough and they're not sure if they have coronavirus, then they're going to get it at the hospital and that doesn't have any basis and fact. Our fear is these deaths aren't even necessarily all coronavirus deaths, they are chest pains that are heart attacks and that person is afraid of getting coronavirus so they don't go to the hospital," said Souders.

Dr. Peter Hotez said sudden deaths have impacted metros across the U.S. He said there's two components to consider: one being people deciding not to seek care out of fear, and the other is the virus itself.

"Things that keep me up at night, that really worry me is the stroke, the emboli, the heart attacks and low oxygen levels, and I think all of those things contribute to sudden death," said Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

HFD said other factors could include stress and social distancing causing people not to be able to check on their loved ones as frequently.

The message is, if you're having a medical emergency, call 911 and seek medical care.

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