Area hospitals are seeing fewer patients right now due to the fear of contracting COVID-19.
However, delaying care for serious ailments such as heart attacks and strokes can prove just as deadly.
Before the pandemic, DeSoto Memorial Hospital saw, on average, 15 strokes a month. Now that number has dropped to just three.
"When patients do come in, they are usually beyond the treatment window," said Jason Newton, the stroke coordinator for DeSoto Memorial Hospital.
But this isn't just a regional issue. Nearly a third of American adults, or 29%, say that they have delayed or avoided medical care because they are concerned about contracting COVID-19, according to a poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the Morning Consult.
Amanda Gleockler, the director of DeSoto Memorial's emergency room, is seeing more people hesitating to seek treatment, with the hospital's E.R. going from up to 60 patients a day to now treating roughly half that. "And when they finally do gather the courage to go to the hospital, their symptoms are much more severe than if they came initially," she said.
Port Charlotte's Fawcett Memorial Hospital has also reported a 45% drop in the number of patients seeking emergency care, according to hospital spokesperson Alexandria Benjamin.
"A delay in treatment can result in damage to heart muscle, and a delay in the immediate diagnosis and treatment of stroke can result in brain damage," Benjamin said.
"Wounds are getting infected, blood sugars are at dangerously high levels, and things that need immediate treatment are having lasting damage," Gleockler said. "People are rationalizing their symptoms as something minor so they don’t come here and risk catching coronavirus, when the reality is, they’re making themselves worse by staying home."
Hospitals in the area are following guidelines implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are even implementing extra precautions to ensure patient and caregiver safety.
Both Bayfront Health Hospitals in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, as well as Fawcett Memorial, Sarasota Memorial, DeSoto Memorial, and Venice Regional hospitals, are screening all patients for risk factors and symptoms, and placing any individuals either suspected or confirmed of the virus in a separate area. These hospitals have also reported implementing rigorous cleaning and disinfecting protocols throughout their facilities.
"It's just a small fraction of the patients that are here who are COVID positive patients — roughly 5%," said David Verinder, the CEO of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, in a video message to staff. "This hospital is a very safe place to be."
"Don't delay (care)," Verinder continued. "You could cause yourself irreparable harm where you can't recover."
As non-emergency and elective surgeries have started to come back, Sarasota Memorial has seen a rebound in patients, according to spokesperson Allison Warren.
“Rescheduling healthcare procedures that have been delayed is important so health conditions do not deteriorate," said Dr. Ann Piscitelli, chief of staff at Venice Regional Hospital.
But especially if someone is experiencing symptoms of a serious illness, health officials urge them not to delay their care.
"COVID-19 has not stopped heart attacks or strokes or sepsis," Benjamin said, "so please know the symptoms and seek immediate help."