Doctor: If you need to, get to the emergency room

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaDon’t put off care: Dr. Osman Abbasi reassures patients of Union Hospital’s dedication to protective protocol from COVID-19 during a press conference at the hospital on Thursday.

A side effect of social distancing and taking precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19 has created a negative — and possibly long-lasting — impact for some people needing emergency medical care.

People experiencing the symptoms of heart attack, stroke and infections should report to an emergency room as soon as possible said, Dr. Osman Abbasi, medical director of the emergency room at Union Hospital in Terre Haute and in Clinton.

“Emergencies are very time sensitive, and if you delay care, delay your evaluation, there can potentially be irreversible damage that we cannot fix,” Abbasi said.

For example, a person experiencing a stroke can be given a medication that potentially reverses the effects of a stroke if the medication is given within three to four hours of having the stroke. A person who waits two to three days after having a stroke, however, will have permanent effects of the stroke.

“My big worries is there are patients at home who are [experiencing] strokes, heart attacks and infections and the effects are irreversible and it will affect their quality of life,” Abbasi said.

Abbasi said both Union hospitals saw a significant drop-off in emergency room patients starting in April when social distancing was recommended and people became cautious about coronavirus.

On a typical day, Union in Terre Haute sees 150 to 200 patients in the emergency department, Abbasi said. Union Clinton usually sees 24 to 30 patients per day in the ER.

In early April, the hospitals saw about one-third of the patients for a normal day, he said. That has slowly increased to about two-thirds of the usual patient volume on a normal day.

But still, Abbasi said he is hearing concerns from the public about exposure to coronavirus.

“We have taken utmost caution to protect all patients,” he said.

Precautions include a screening process for each person who enters the facility doors. Temperature is taken and questions are asked about general health and exposure to COVID-19. Everyone is also required to wear a face mask.

Abbasi said he feels people are less likely to be exposed to COVID-19 at the hospital than in another public setting because the hospital staff is focused on keeping the facility clean.

Anyone who does present COVID-19 symptoms at the hospital is isolated away from other patients.

Recently, the hospital took down its isolation tent at the emergency room entrance. That tent was set up in anticipation of a high number of COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm the emergency department. An overwhelming surge did not come, Abbasi said, so the tent was taken down. It can be set up again if needed.

So who should report to the emergency room at the first sign of symptoms?

“Overall, it’s patients across the board, but I am concerned about elderly patients, those with cardiovascular disease and anyone with diabetes are the ones I worry about the most,” the doctor said. 

He said he also worries about younger patients who feel they can recover on their own because of their general good health.

“I’ve always been of the school of thought that it’s better to do more than less,” Abbasi said of seeking medical care, especially for illness of a major organ.

Chest pain is related to the heart. Breathing problems are related to the lungs. Headaches or weakness can be signs of a stroke. All of those are important symptoms that should be evaluated in an emergency department, he said.

Terre Haute Regional Hospital is facing a similar situation in the decline of emergency department visits by patients in need of care.

Systems to prevent the spread of any infection are in place, said spokesperson AnnMarie Foote, and include isolating COVID-19 patients, sterilization and cleaning between patient visited, restricted access and visitation, screenings and mask requirements.

Some symptoms which may require emergency medical attention include chest pain; sudden dizziness, weakness or numbness in limbs; trouble breathing; severe stomach or side pain; broken bones and head injuries.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With more than 30 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.

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