• The global number of confirmed cases of coronavirus has passed 3 million.
  • Patients with heart attacks and other serious illnesses are staying away from hospital emergency departments in some countries.
  • In the UK, the number of people attending hospital with suspected heart attacks has halved since early March.
  • Spain and the US have also seen drops.

The threat of COVID-19 is causing some patients not to seek help for health emergencies, putting lives at risk, experts report.

The number of people in England attending hospital with suspected heart attacks has halved since early March, falling to 150 per day from a daily average of 300, according to the British Heart Foundation.

Failing to seek help for heart seizure symptoms could result in long-term damage, greater likelihood of needing intensive care treatment or even death, the organization says.

Other places, including Northern Ireland, Spain and the US, have also seen significant drops in cardiac patients and other people seeking medical assistance.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Critical moments

An online community of cardiologists in the US reports a fall of at least 50% in people receiving emergency hospital treatment for heart attacks.

The trend is supported by Harlan Krumholz, professor of medicine at Yale. Writing in The New York Times, he poses the question: “Where are all the patients with heart attacks and strokes?

Masks and sanitizing items are on hand in a patient check-in desk for coronavirus testing in the emergency room at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, U.S., March 18, 2020.  u000dREUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC2YMF9AB8YF
Coronavirus fears are deterring some patients with health emergencies from seeking help.
Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“In more normal times, we never have so many empty beds," he writes about Yale New Haven Hospital.

"Our hospital is usually so full that patients wait in gurneys along the walls of the emergency department for a bed to become available on the general wards, or even in the intensive care unit," he says.

Professor Krumholz points to colleagues on Twitter who echo his concerns, highlighting a decline in patient numbers for emergencies such as acute appendicitis and acute gall bladder conditions.

Daily number of recorded attendances in England’s hospital emergency departments

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The daily number of recorded attendances in England’s hospital emergency departments.
Image: Public Health England

In the UK, Public Health England’s Emergency Syndromic Surveillance System (EDSSS) shows a steep decline in people seeking hospital emergency treatment.

Daily patient numbers fell by around a third to fewer than 8,000 in March, compared with the previous month. The decrease represents fewer patients turning to emergency medical services across a range of conditions, including heart disease, asthma and acute gastrointestinal problems.

In many countries, the pandemic has changed demand for medical services. While fears of exposure to COVID-19 are causing fewer people to seek hospital help, lockdowns and social distancing measures have led to some procedures being cancelled, and the increased use of telemedicine to treat patients remotely.

Patient screenings and test referrals for cancer have been paused across most of the UK, for example. Figures from Cancer Research UK show around 200,000 weekly screenings for bowel, breast and cervical cancer have been put on hold.

While the UK’s coronavirus restrictions continue, some other European nations are lifting measures. In a phased approach, countries including France, Italy and Spain have allowed some parts of their economies to reopen.

In Switzerland, the Federal Council has authorized parts of the economy to go back to work. Hospitals can resume non-emergency procedures and accept outpatients for treatment, although social distancing measures remain in place.