Local doctors are worried that deaths in the Fredericksburg area will climb—not necessarily because of COVID-19—but because people with life-threatening conditions are afraid to go to the emergency room.

Dr. Donna Gamache, the Spotsylvania County doctor who examines patients in the parking lot to minimize everyone’s exposure, has seen some horrible conditions in the last three days. One patient had a perforated appendix; another was suffering serious chest pain. Yet another had a leg abscess that was septic and one had a terrible laceration on her arm from a fall.

Gamache sent them all to be hospitalized.

“All of these patients were scared to go to the ER,” she said, adding people may think local emergencies rooms are similar to what’s depicted on the nightly news. “We are not in New York City, and people should definitely go to the ER with an emergency. They shouldn’t wait until they’re on death’s door to go.”

Numbers provided by Mary Washington Healthcare illustrate that, in the wake of fear about being exposed to the novel coronavirus, people are staying away from emergency departments. All three of its facilities with emergency rooms—Mary Washington Hospital, Stafford Hospital and the Emergency & Outpatient Center at Lee’s Hill—have seen declines since mid-March, said Dr. Eric Tosh, an emergency medicine physician.

Mary Washington Hospital alone is seeing 60 to 80 patients fewer, per day, in the emergency department compared with normal daily averages.

“When the dust from all this settles, my great fear is that we will have many patients who will have suffered harm, irreparable harm, because they avoided coming to the emergency room when they really needed to be there,” Tosh said. “Chest pains, symptoms of a stroke, these are emergencies that need to be taken care of immediately.”

Gamache also said people were reluctant to be hospitalized because they’d have to there alone. In an effort to minimize the spread of the virus, visitors are not allowed.

“Everybody’s scared to death to go to the ER, and things are really bad,” Gamache said, then she thought about the woman with the torn appendix. “But if you have horrible belly pain, you need to go to the ER.”

Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center could not provide any comments on its situation.

Tosh stressed that MWH has not opened its “field hospital” for COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s parking garage. It was set up to accommodate an overwhelming influx of patients with the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He hopes the hospital never has to use the makeshift MASH unit.

Patients who currently enter the emergency room with respiratory symptoms are given masks, just as they would if they showed signs of the seasonal flu. There’s a provision to section off an area for those with presumptive COVID-19 cases, but Tosh said that hasn’t even been needed yet.

“Right now, because of our volumes, there’s nobody in the waiting room,” Tosh said.

Tosh understands peoples’ concerns about being exposed to the virus—especially in a place where people sickened by it are gathered. In some ways, the “fear and uncertainty” in the midst of a global pandemic lead to good behaviors, such as people staying at home instead of going to restaurants or hanging out with their friends.

But that stay-at-home rule “doesn’t apply to medical emergencies,” he said. “Get the care that you need.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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