When COVID-19 surged through our community in November and December, we emphasized how precarious the situation was becoming. Our facilities were full and our resources stretched dangerously thin. Across the state, COVID cases threatened to overwhelm hospital- and ICU-bed access.
Afraid of contracting the coronavirus and because of reduced capacity, people stayed home and delayed or skipped medical care, an unfortunate reality that continues today.
However, now that prevalence is incredibly low and health care accessibility is great, we urge people to resume regular care. Serious health issues and chronic conditions have not gone away because of the pandemic. Instead, they are being exacerbated by neglect — sometimes irreversibly so. At Essentia Health and St. Luke’s, we are noticing higher-acuity patients coming in for urgent and emergent care. They are unnecessarily sick because chronic conditions were left untreated.
Ignored hypertension becomes a devastating heart attack. Unchecked atrial fibrillation turns into a debilitating stroke.
Our providers feel helpless.
The same scenario is playing out with preventive care like colonoscopies, mammograms, and immunizations. At Essentia, for example, we did 1,119 screening colonoscopies in Duluth in 2019. That number fell by about 33% last year, to 751. St. Luke’s likewise saw a 17% drop in mammograms from 2019 to 2020. Nationwide, overall cancer screenings fell precipitously. An exhaustive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association observed that during the early stages of the pandemic, diagnoses of six cancers — breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, gastric, and esophageal — dropped an astounding 46% in the United States.
If left undetected for too long, the ability to treat many cancers is compromised.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided care by June 30, 2020. Another report — this one from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio — found that one in five adults in the U.S. “reported their household members were unable to get or delayed getting medical care for serious problems. Among those reporting delayed care, more than half (57%) said they experienced negative health consequences as a result.”
Let’s all recognize these risks and take action. Delaying care increases morbidity and mortality connected to those treatable and preventable health conditions, according to the CDC. Avoid disastrous outcomes by seeking care when necessary.
We understand why people were reluctant to see their primary care physician, go to urgent care, get a colonoscopy, or have their labs drawn when COVID-19 was rampant in the fall, but things have improved dramatically. At St. Mary’s Medical Center and St. Luke’s in downtown Duluth, the number of COVID inpatients is down by about 90% to 95%. Hardly any of those patients are residing in our hospitals.
It is safe to seek care.
That’s especially true when you consider that most of our providers have been vaccinated and that we continue to wear masks and promote social distancing. Despite the recent lull in COVID-19 activity, we remain vigilant against a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans. We’re too close to putting this public health crisis in the rearview mirror. It’s no time to become careless.
And it’s no time to disregard your body’s warning signs. If something feels amiss, or you’re due for a screening, or your blood pressure or sugar levels are not under control, come see us. Let us treat you so a minor problem doesn’t morph into a crisis. Reach out to your family doctor, stop by your neighborhood clinic, or schedule a virtual visit.
We’d much rather see you walk into one of our clinic lobbies than be wheeled into our emergency room.
Members of our community have made so many sacrifices because of COVID-19. You’ve stayed home, avoided group gatherings, and wore a mask judiciously. All to protect others.
Now it’s time to take care of yourself. And we’d like to help.
Dr. Jon Pryor is president of Essentia Health in Duluth. Dr. Nick Van Deelen is interim co-president, CEO, and chief medical officer for St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth. They wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.