Ballad Health reports “alarming” drop in emergency room visits amid pandemic

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Apr 21, 2020 at 7:49 PM

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spread through the region, Ballad Health emergency room physicians began noticing a concerning trend — people weren’t coming to the ER as often as they were before the pandemic.

Overall, Ballad Health’s emergency rooms have seen a 51% reduction in visits “over the last few weeks,” while Washington County EMS have reported a 45% reduction in the number of calls for chest pain, shortness of breath, abdominal pain and stroke symptoms, Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Daly Runnels said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“There’s an alarming trend nationwide that healthcare professionals are very concerned about with regard to people not seeking necessary care when they’re having serious symptoms,” Runnels said. “Many of them are referring to it as a ‘silent sub-epidemic’ within the pandemic that we’re experiencing.

“While it’s important to be cautious and limit your potential COVID-19 exposure, it’s also vital that you seek care when you need it,” he added.

And, while Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine later said the decline was “to be expected,” it’s still concerning physicians and hospitals across the country.

“I’m not convinced that there’s been a 50% reduction in chest pain,” Levine said, noting earlier that a reduction in trauma patients was anticipated. “I’m convinced that there’s been a reduction in chest pain, but there are chest pain patients who’ve experienced it who haven’t gotten the help they might need and the net result of that could be a really bad outcome.”

Levine also urged those with critical care needs to go to the emergency room when needed, adding that he “can’t think of anything more important” than getting people critical care when needed.

“These hospitals are there for you, the ERs are there for you, they’re staffed and they’re prepared to take care of any condition,” Levine said. “Please utilize those services if you find that it’s necessary.”

Levine supportive of governor’s decision to reopen economy

When asked how he felt about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to reopen the economy, Levine said he’s “very pleased,” even though the system is preparing for an increase in COVID-19 cases as a result.

“I think he’s trusting Tennesseans to make good, responsible decisions for their health and the health of the people around them,” Levine said. “At the same time, he’s saying that the economic health of our state is relevant.”

Levine said, at the moment, he anticipates Ballad has the capacity to handle an increase in COVID-19 patients, but that could “could change quickly if we don't heed the governor’s advice and respect the need to socially distance ourselves until we get through this with a vaccine.”

“We know there’s going to be a surge in cases, and so we’re preparing to manage through that, but we’re also — we don’t know what human behavior is going to look like, particularly for the population of people who are high-risk.

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