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Reports of heart attacks are down during the COVID-19 pandemic — and that's not a good thing

Reports of heart attacks are down during the COVID-19 pandemic — and that's not a good thing
Posted at 10:12 AM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 10:12:10-04

CINCINNATI — Since the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors have anecdotally asked, "where have all the heart attacks gone?"

All around the world, hospitals aren't seeing as many heart patients as they normally would, especially at a time when they would have expected more cases.

The answer is that some people with heart symptoms avoided going to hospitals to seek treatment because they were told not to, or they feared exposure to COVID-19.

Ron Messer, 48, noticed some chest pain while doing yard work with his wife in April. The pain went away but came back.

"My wife had asked me, 'How are you feeling today?'" Messer said. "Crazy coincidence — just two to three minutes before I started feeling tightness in my chest again."

He also had pain from the shoulder to both arms and tightness in his throat. Messer's wife looked up the symptoms of a heart attack, and they matched.

"The last thing she said to me (was), 'If you're unsure – having a heart attack – listen to your body,'" Messer said. "And I said to her, 'I'm listening to my body, and you should call someone.'"

Paramedics took Messer to a cath lab at a Batesville, Indiana, hospital.

"I imagine they went in with a camera first — looked around — found a clot, found the issue.

Doctors found a blockage in what experts call the "widowmaker" artery. If he hadn't gone to the hospital, he might have died.

Dr. Timothy Henry, the medical director at the Carl & Edyth Lindner Center for Research at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati said there's been a clearly documented increase in at-home cardiac arrests across the US and Europe. He was part of the research that looked at nine regional systems, including The Christ Hospital.

"So we would have expected to see about a 20% increase — instead we saw a 40% decrease," Henry said.

It's a side effect, he said, of the pandemic.

"The symptoms of COVID and symptoms of a heart attack are similar," Henry said. "People can have chest pain and shortness of breath."

He said that people experiencing any of those symptoms should still seek medical attention and let the problem be diagnosed by doctors.

"It's safe to come to the hospital," Henry said. "You come in, we fix it, you go home."

That's what happened with Messer — who said he's looking forward to many more years with his family.

"Don't worry about coronavirus," Messer said. "Make sure you're taking care of what you need to take care of."

Messer said he felt totally comfortable with the set-up at the hospital when it comes to the separation of COVID patients and other patients. He was transferred directly to the cath lab, where they took care of the blockage and put in a stent. The whole procedure took close to 36 hours.

His advice is for people to listen to their bodies and act on what it's saying — because in an emergency situation, every second counts.

This story was originally published by Kristyn Hartman on WCPO in Cincinnati.

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Data from The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.