Non-COVID-19 Deaths: How to Curb America’s Other Public Health Pandemic

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to surge across the country, but the deadly coronavirus has led to another public health crisis: Non-COVID-19 deaths are rising in nearly every state. The coronavirus pandemic has forced medical facilities to put elective procedures on hold, including routine and preventative care. Back in May, it looked as if elective procedures were making a comeback as some states stated to flatten the curve, but recent outbreaks have since foiled these plans.

For many patients, the pandemic means waiting at home until they can go back to the doctor’s office to get the care they need. Some are suffering from chronic pain and limited mobility, while others can’t afford to wait. Learn how you can lower non-virus-related deaths in your community.

Excess Deaths on the Rise

Back in May, we reported on “excess deaths” and the unintended consequences of closing down elective procedures during the pandemic. The CDC has been tracking the number of non-COVID-19 deaths since hospitals started scaling back these services. This has led to a spike in these “excess deaths,” or those that wouldn’t normally occur outside of a pandemic, compared to death rates from years prior.

For example, if a patient is suffering from heart disease, they could die from a heart attack at home if they can’t go to the hospital for medical care. This person would be counted as an “excess death,” because they likely wouldn’t have died if hospitals were operating under normal circumstances.

Over the last couple months, many states and hospitals were starting to put elective procedures and appointments back on the schedule, but they have once again been postponed due to recent outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus. As the weeks go on, researchers are learning more about “excess deaths” and how they can be prevented.

A recent study found that around 87,000 excess deaths occurred in the U.S. from March 1st to April 25th, often cited as being the peak of the pandemic. Sixty-five percent were attributed to COVID-19 and 35% were linked to other causes, including stroke, heart disease, and other common medical conditions.

Where are all these deaths coming from?

It’s not clear why so many people are dying from other causes outside of what we tend to see this time of year. Some say these individuals may have been infected with COVID-19, but they died at home instead of the hospital. They were also likely never tested or diagnosed with the deadly virus, so it may take a few weeks for officials to add them to the official coronavirus death toll.

Others believe a variety of pandemic-related factors contributed to these deaths, including delayed medical care. Many patients have had to rely on telehealth and live video and audio in lieu of seeing their provider in person. This can complicate the care delivery process, especially if the patient is meeting with a specialist or provider for the first time, or if they are suffering from a chronic disease that’s difficult to treat from a distance.

Others may have died from the stress of the pandemic. Many people remain separated from friends and family. Social interaction is vital to the health of some individuals, especially if they can’t get by on their own. The financial fallout may be to blame, as well, as millions get laid off and go on unemployment.

Looking at Specifics

Excess deaths vary widely across the country, but they seem to be particularly prevalent in more urban states and those that were most affected by the coronavirus, including New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

During the peak of the pandemic, diabetes deaths in these five states rose 96% above the expected number when compared to the weekly averages in January and February of 2020. They also saw a sharp increase in deaths from heart disease (89%), Alzheimer’s disease (64%) and stroke (35%).

According to Michigan health officials, out-of-hospital cardiac arrests increased by 43.3% this year between March 15 and May 23. Officials say out-of-hospital deaths recorded by EMS also increased by 62% between those dates.

How to Help Your Patients from a Distance

Clearly, some patients prefer to die at home instead of contacting their local provider for emergency assistance. The fear of contracting the virus at a hospital may be doing more harm than good if it means these patients aren’t getting life-saving medical services.

Use these tips to stay connected to your patients, so they don’t have to go it alone, even if elective procedures are still on hold in your state:

  • Develop clear protocols for advising patients in terms of when and how they should seek in-person medical care. In the event of an emergency, direct them to a nearby in-person facility.
  • Talk about how you’re keeping patients safe when they come into the facility, so they feel more comfortable accessing care during the pandemic. Address any specific concerns head on.
  • Emphasis the need for in-person appointments and check-ups even if the patient’s surgery has been rescheduled.
  • Remind your patients of the importance of mental health. Direct them to local counselors, providers, and support groups if they are stressed, isolated, or feeling hopeless.
  • Do your best to improve the health of your patients even if you can’t see them in person. Make sure they are leading an active lifestyle, eating healthy, taking their medication, and managing their chronic condition from a distance.
  • Try to stay positive and encourage your patients to do the same without neglecting their concerns. Remind them that help is always standing by.

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t letting up anytime soon, and, for some, it’s not clear when elective surgeries will resume, so do your best to help your patients get the care they need during this stressful time. Help them feel seen and heard, so they have the strength and hope to make it to the other side of the pandemic. Point out that you will see each other again in person. It’s only a matter of time.

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