Austin residents, worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves, are avoiding local emergency rooms.
St. David's HealthCare, which operates six ERs in Austin, has seen a nearly 50% decrease in ER visits this month compared to April 2019. Cardiac-related visits are down 55%, and stroke visits 44% for the same period.
Baylor Scott & White Health locations are seeing a similar trend, ranging from a 30% to 50% decrease in ER admissions, Round Rock Emergency Department Director Dr. Ross Tobleman said.
This drop may be partly attributable to a decrease in minor injuries, such as those caused by car accidents and falls, as people stay home, Dr. Tobleman said. But both hospital systems said the main reason is patients are afraid of being exposed to COVID-19.
While ER admissions are down, those patients who do seek emergency treatment are exhibiting more severe symptoms.
"Patients are waiting until conditions are too much to bear, and then coming into the emergency department at a much later stage, and so [are] suffering more and are more likely or more susceptible to actually succumbing to the disease," said Dr. DeVry Anderson, chief medical officer at St. David's South Austin Medical Center.
This is particularly concerning for patients with symptoms consistent with heart attacks or strokes, for whom waiting to seek treatment may lead to long-term damage—or even death. "We have great interventions that can reverse those disease processes that are very time-sensitive," Dr. Tobleman said.
In addition to concerns about exposure to COVID-19, patients may also be avoiding ERs because they are intimidated by safety procedures—such as universal masking and visitor restrictions—or concerned about heeding local stay-at-home orders.
"I think people are not wanting to be a burden," Dr. Tobleman said, adding that BSW emergency departments have plenty of capacity to treat patients. "People are saying, 'There are sicker people out there than me.'"
Area urgent cares are also seeing a drop in admissions.
FastMed, which has nine urgent care locations in and around Austin, has seen "a significant downturn" in patients, Area Medical Manager Megan Fox said. She attributed the change to patient fears about contracting COVID-19 and an increased willingness to seek out telemedicine.
Fox said that FastMed has implemented new policies, such as online check-in and having patients wait in their cars to limit the number of people inside the clinic. "I really think that patients can have peace of mind visiting one of our clinics when they need to," she said.
This trend is hardly specific to Austin. More than four in five Americans said they considered visits to medical facilities risky because of potential exposure to COVID-19, according to a Gallup poll conducted between March 28 and April 2.
And a forthcoming article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that, at nine hospitals with high-volume cardiac catheterization laboratories, there has been a 38% reduction in patients being treated for a very serious type of heart attack, known as a STEMI, in which one of the heart's major arteries is blocked.
In New York City, deaths are six times higher than normal—which is likely due to an undercount of COVID-19 cases as well as to other indirect effects of the pandemic, such as an increase of at-home deaths as people avoid hospitals.
"We don't want that here at St. David's South Austin Medical Center," Dr. Anderson said. "We are encouraging patients to choose care over fear."
St. David's has implemented visitor restrictions, screening measures such as temperature checks and universal testing of all surgery patients, and increased cleaning protocols; patients with COVID-19 symptoms are separated out to reduce spread. BSW has implemented similar changes.
Both doctors urged patients to seek out care—and to feel safe doing so.
"Aside from remaining in your own home, the hospital is the safest place you can be because of the incredible protocols we've put in place to protect our patients and to protect our staff," Dr. Anderson said.
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."