Fire departments and emergency medical services have experienced an approximate 25% decrease in the number of calls for serious health conditions such as STEMI heart attacks in King County. In correlation with other data, medical professionals are concerned there could be a reluctance to call 911 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The apprehension to calling 911 could be related to fear of contracting COVID-19 or overwhelming emergency services. Emergency medical providers including fire departments, EMS, private ambulance services, emergency rooms and hospitals are prepared for all medical emergencies, COVID-related or not. While first responders may approach incidents with increased Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) their ability to respond to emergencies has not changed.
“Our EMTs and paramedics are available to help, and our hospitals have process and procedures in place to safely and efficiently isolate suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. Persons experiencing life-threatening medical emergencies should call 911 to receive the treatment they need,” said King County EMS Medical Director Dr. Thomas Rea.
A STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction) heart attack is caused by a blockage of the coronary artery. Symptoms of STEMI include chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, palpitations, dizziness or light headiness. In King County paramedics carry equipment on medic units to diagnose a STEMI heart attack in the field and can coordinate with the hospital so that the patient receives specialty care upon arrival.
Along with the decrease in STEMI calls, there is also an increase in the number of calls for persons who have died prior to receiving medical attention in the field. Though cause of death is determined by the County’s Medical Examiner, the approximate 10% increase in persons found deceased upon arrival (DOAs) by fire department crews is concerning.
“One explanation for the decrease in calls for STEMI heart attacks and increase in DOA calls is that people with serious medical emergencies may be apprehensive to call 911 during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Seattle Fire Department Medical Director Dr. Michael Sayre. “We want people to call 911 immediately if they have any symptoms of heart attack or stroke. If you are having chest pain, or suddenly develop face, arm, or leg weakness or difficulty speaking, please do not wait to call 911.”
“While the COVID-19 response can overwhelm emergency services, social distancing and emergency orders in King County have helped to reduce the impact on fire departments locally,” said President of the King County Fire Chiefs Association Chief Matthew Morris. “We have all worked together to establish procedures to keep our personnel and the patients we treat safe and we are here to serve the community.”