Heart attacks and strokes don’t stop during pandemics. But Galveston County emergency rooms are experiencing lower than normal traffic largely because patients fear contracting coronavirus, officials said.

But staying away from the emergency rooms when people are sick can be dangerous and lead to more intense or harmful conditions, say physicians who want to assure potential patients it’s safe to go to hospitals.

The University of Texas Medical Branch is starting to see more patients return to the emergency room but not as many as normal, said Katrina Lambrecht, vice president of health system operations and regional hospitals.

“Since the low volumes we experienced in the middle of COVID in April, we are seeing more than 10 percent increase in volumes across all of our emergency rooms in total in May,” Lambrecht said.

During a normal week, the HCA Houston Healthcare facility Clear Lake sees between 170 and 210 patients daily, said Dr. Carl Vartian, chief medical officer at the Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals for HCA Houston Healthcare.

In April, daily patient numbers dropped to 70, he said.

“Now we’re opening back up again,” Vartian said.

On May 18, the Clear Lake emergency room saw 136 patients, he said, adding that people need to feel safe going into emergency rooms.

Fewer people are going in with conditions such as heart attacks and strokes, Vartian said.

“You wouldn’t think those would get better with coronavirus,” he said.

People were especially afraid early in the pandemic because there was so much unknown, Lambrecht said.


“We are beginning to see more people feel comfortable with how to live and work in an environment where we need to take measures to protect ourselves from COVID, and that translates into people coming back for their health care issues as well,” Lambrecht said.

Some of the drop in emergency room volumes also could be because the region is still in the middle of phased reopening, she said.

“We do continue to see some lower volumes in terms of motor vehicle accidents and other traumas,” Lambrecht said.

Drops in emergency room numbers is an issue throughout Texas, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association and an emergency room physician at several Houston-area facilities.

“They’re afraid to come in,” Fite said.

Some people aren’t going in because they’re afraid of contracting coronavirus or because they’re worried about spreading it, but people really should contact a doctor or emergency services if they have chest pain, abdominal pain or stroke-like symptoms, Fite said.

Fite recently treated a patient who had experienced abdominal pain for five days and by the time the patient made it to the hospital, she had a ruptured appendix, she said.

It’s pretty rare for appendicitis to get to that point, Fite said.

“Now, that’s major, major surgery and a long recovery time,” Fite said.

The medical branch is seeing some people with more acute symptoms but not in significant numbers, Lambrecht said.

Hospitals are taking numerous precautions to ensure the safety of visitors, Vartian said.

The Mainland hospital takes temperatures of everyone walking in, has reduced visitation and restricted entrances and is requiring masking, he said.

“Hospitals are actually quite safe and we actually go out of our way to make sure you’re not going to get sick at the hospital,” Vartian said.

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; or on Twitter @HeathKeri.


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(1) comment

James Thornton

Could it be? Staying home makes us healthier? Who’d a thought?!

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