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Potential indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on use of emergency departments for acute life-threatening conditions — United States, January–May 2020
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  • Description:
    What is already known about this topic?: National syndromic surveillance data suggest a decline in emergency department (ED) visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    What is added by this report?: In the 10 weeks following declaration of the COVID-19 national emergency, ED visits declined 23% for heart attack, 20% for stroke, and 10% for hyperglycemic crisis.

    What are the implications for public health practice?: Persons experiencing chest pain, loss of motor function, altered mental status, or other life-threatening issues should seek immediate emergency care, regardless of the pandemic. Communication from public health and health care professionals should reinforce the importance of timely care for acute health conditions and assure the public that EDs are implementing infection prevention and control guidelines to ensure the safety of patients and health care personnel.

    On March 13, 2020, the United States declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Subsequently, states enacted stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and reduce the burden on the U.S. health care system. CDC* and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)† recommended that health care systems prioritize urgent visits and delay elective care to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in health care settings. By May 2020, national syndromic surveillance data found that emergency department (ED) visits had declined 42% during the early months of the pandemic (1). This report describes trends in ED visits for three acute life-threatening health conditions (myocardial infarction [MI, also known as heart attack], stroke, and hyperglycemic crisis), immediately before and after declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic as a national emergency. These conditions represent acute events that always necessitate immediate emergency care, even during a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 10 weeks following the emergency declaration (March 15–May 23, 2020), ED visits declined 23% for MI, 20% for stroke, and 10% for hyperglycemic crisis, compared with the preceding 10-week period (January 5–March 14, 2020). EDs play a critical role in diagnosing and treating life-threatening conditions that might result in serious disability or death. Persons experiencing signs or symptoms of serious illness, such as severe chest pain, sudden or partial loss of motor function, altered mental state, signs of extreme hyperglycemia, or other life-threatening issues, should seek immediate emergency care, regardless of the pandemic. Clear, frequent, highly visible communication from public health and health care professionals is needed to reinforce the importance of timely care for medical emergencies and to assure the public that EDs are implementing infection prevention and control guidelines that help ensure the safety of their patients and health care personnel.

    CDC used data from its National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP) to assess trends in ED visits from week 1, 2019 through week 21, 2020 for three life-threatening health conditions: MI, stroke, and hyperglycemic crisis. NSSP is a collaboration among CDC, federal partners, local and state health departments, and academic and private sector partners to collect, analyze, and share electronic patient encounter data received from emergency departments, urgent and ambulatory care centers, inpatient health care settings, and laboratories for public health action.§ NSSP includes ED visits from a subset of hospitals in 47 states (all but Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming) and the District of Columbia, capturing approximately 73% of ED visits nationwide. These analyses were limited to EDs with consistent ≥90% completeness for patient discharge diagnosis to ensure data quality (1,670 EDs).¶ The three conditions were defined using the following International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10) codes: MI = I21–I22; stroke = I60–I61 (hemorrhagic stroke) or I63 (ischemic stroke); and hyperglycemic crisis = E10.1, E11.1, or E13.1 (diabetic ketoacidosis) or E11.0, E13.0, or E10.65 and E10.69 (hyperosmolar hyperglycemic syndrome). Weekly numbers of ED visits for each of the three conditions were compared for two 10-week periods: January 5–March 14, 2020 (weeks 2–11, prepandemic) and March 15–May 23, 2020 (weeks 12–21, early pandemic). The absolute differences and percentage change in number of visits from pre- to early pandemic periods were tabulated, overall and within age-sex strata. Analyses were conducted using SAS (version 9.4; SAS Institute).

    Suggested citation for this article: Lange SJ, Ritchey MD, Goodman AB, et al. Potential Indirect Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Use of Emergency Departments for Acute Life-Threatening Conditions — United States, January–May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 22 June 2020.

    mm6925e2-H.pdf

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