Care for stroke dwindled by nearly 20% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new worldwide assessment published in the International Journal of Stroke that included a contribution from a co-author from Oregon Health & Science University.
That’s not because stroke suddenly became more uncommon with the pandemic.
“Fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2 may have led many patients with milder stroke presentations to avoid seeking medical attention,” the authors write.
Waiting to get care is dangerous, said study co-author Helmi Lutsep, M.D., a stroke specialist who also serves as interim chair and professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine.
“If you think that you might be having a stroke, please, please come in. Do not hesitate,” Lutsep said. “The risks of having a bad outcome of a stroke are greater than the risk of catching COVID in a hospital.”
The study measured case volumes in the first three months of the pandemic – March, April and May of 2020 – and compared it with volumes measured during two previous periods: the same three months in 2019 and the three months immediately predating the onset of the pandemic.
Researchers found hospitalizations for stroke declined 19.2% among a series of studies measuring case volumes in 187 comprehensive stroke centers such as OHSU’s across six continents.
Stroke care declined even more substantially at OHSU – down about 33% compared with the same three months of the year prior to the pandemic and down 29% compared to December 2019 through February of 2020.
Lutsep said the study underscores the importance of people calling 911 or seeking medical attention as soon as they recognize symptoms of stroke. Timely treatment can lead to recovery, whereas waiting can lead to lifelong disability or death.
“We worry that people aren’t getting the care they need,” she said.
The decrease in stroke cases is especially notable in light of the fact that COVID-19 has been associated with blood clotting often associated with stroke.
Last April, several American medical associations emphasized the importance of people calling 911 and seeking medical care when they need it. They cited declines in stroke care as well as heart attacks, with many people reluctant to visit hospitals or emergency rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet the risk of foregoing medical care far outweighs the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, especially in hospitals that have taken extraordinary measures to ensure patient safety.