How Many People Avoided Emergency Departments Early in the Pandemic?

Richard Franki
June 04, 2020

During a 4-week period early in the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to U.S. emergency departments were down by 42%, compared with the corresponding period in 2019, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The striking decline in ED visits nationwide ... suggests that the pandemic has altered the use of the ED by the public," Kathleen P. Hartnett, PhD, and associates at the CDC said June 3 in the Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report.

The weekly mean was just over 1.2 million ED visits for the 4 weeks from March 29 to April 25, 2020, compared with the nearly 2.2 million visits per week recorded from March 31 to April 27, 2019 – a drop of 42%, based on an analysis of data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program.

Despite that drop, ED visits for infectious disease–related reasons, taken as a proportion of all 1.2 ED visits during the early pandemic period, were 3.8 times higher than the comparison period in 2019, the investigators reported.

ED visits also were higher in 2020 for specified and unspecified lower respiratory disease not including influenza, pneumonia, asthma, or bronchitis (prevalence ratio of 1.99, compared with 2019), cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation (PR, 1.98), and pneumonia not caused by tuberculosis (PR, 1.91), Dr. Hartnett and associates said.

Prevalence ratios for the early pandemic period were down for most other conditions, with some of the largest decreases seen for influenza (PR, 0.16), otitis media (PR, 0.35), and neoplasm-related encounters (PR, 0.40), they said.

Visits have increased each week since reaching their lowest point during April 12-18, but the number for the most recent full week, May 24-30, which was not included in the analysis, was still 26% lower than the corresponding week in 2019, the CDC team pointed out.

"Some persons could be delaying care for conditions that might result in additional mortality if left untreated," the investigators noted, and those "who use the ED as a safety net because they lack access to primary care and telemedicine might be disproportionately affected if they avoid seeking care because of concerns about the infection risk in the ED."

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Reviewed on 6/5/2020
SOURCE: Medscape, June 04, 2020. Hartnett KP et al. MMWR. 2020 Jun 3. 69:1-6.

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