Doctors concerned that coronavirus fears are keeping people from seeking medical treatment for other conditions


ST. LOUIS – With all the talk of reopening the St. Louis area amid the coronavirus pandemic, health care officials confirmed conversations had begun about returning things to normal but said it was still very early in the process.

Things had also never closed, though non-COVID-19 patients stayed away from doctors’ appointments as if they had.

“People are staying away,” said Dr. Jeff Ciaramita, president of Mercy Clinic Heart and Vascular. “What then results is things we’re all starting to see across all of our health systems: patients are showing up at our hospitals, emergency departments, our clinics, and their conditions have gone past the point of no return.”

Mercy’s overall patient load at doctors’ offices and hospitals plummeted to below 20 percent of the norm after the onset of the pandemic in the St. Louis, area he said. They’d rebounded to closer to 80 percent at present.

Instead of waiting for some type of grand reopening and return to normal, patients needed to face the new normal that was already upon us, he said.

It includes COVID-19 screenings at triage centers at doctors’ offices before all visits, with safeguards now standardized to keep the virus from spreading.

This new normal may mean virtual doctor visits via computer, tablet, or smart phone. It does not mean putting off care when you need it.

“Pandemics don’t wait for (other) illnesses or injuries or chronic conditions,” Dr. Ciaramita said.

To use the “hammer and dance” analogy, planning continues for the day when a cure or vaccine takes away the hammer of COVID-19 and we all can again dance as we did before the pandemic.

“Right now, I think we’re walking out to the dance floor. We’re not quite dancing. We’re trying to plan our steps and maybe taking dance lessons. In the end, there are human lives at risk here. If we dance too far to either side then bad outcomes can arise,” Dr. Ciaramita said.

One benefit of staying home and social distancing in the St. Louis area is the preservation of the health care system so that it’s been able to evolve to meet patient needs beyond COVID-19, he said.

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