June 3 (UPI) -- Visits to hospital U.S. emergency rooms have dropped by more than 40 percent so far in 2020, compared to the same period last year, according to figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The statistics indicate that a significant number of Americans may have delayed or declined emergency care because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said.
In their analysis of ER visit trends, CDC researchers analyzed data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program for the period of Jan. 1 through May 30. The program includes data from all U.S. states except Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Changes in how hospitals, and specifically ERs, are used could be a lasting legacy of the new coronavirus, according to some public health experts.
Many patients who once addressed health concerns by heading to the ER could be managed remotely, using telemedicine, Dr. Paul Biddinger, during a conference call with reporters on May 26.
Biddinger, vice chair for emergency preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, was not part of the CDC analysis.
"People have been working for years, probably really fair to say decades, on telemedicine, when it's appropriate for patients not to have to come to the hospital, but they can see their doctor remotely," Biddinger said.
"And the pandemic forced a lot of that on us," he said.
The CDC researchers compared total visits so far this year to the same five-month period in 2019.
The number of ER visits declined from a mean of roughly 2.1 million per week between March 31, 2019, and April 27, 2019, to a mean of 1.22 million per week during the "early pandemic" period of March 29 to April 25 of this year, according to the CDC.
ER visits declined for every age group, with the largest proportional declines in children 10 years old and younger at 72 percent and children 11 to 14 years old at 71 percent, the agency said.
Researchers found the largest declines in ER visits occurred in the New England states at 49 percent, as well as in the mid-Atlantic region at 48 percent. That region includes New York and New Jersey, which has been the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak.
ER visits related to abdominal pain and other digestive problems fell by more than 66,000 per week from year to year, while those among patients reporting musculoskeletal pain -- excluding low-back pain -- dropped by more than 52,000 per week, according to the CDC report.
Visits for "sprains and strains" declined by nearly 34,000 per week, and those related to "superficial injuries" fell by nearly 31,000 per week, the researchers said.
Conversely, ER visits for "exposure, encounters, screening or contact with infectious disease" increased by nearly 19,000 per week from 2019 to 2020, the analysis found. Specifically, some 18,000 ER visits occurred per week across the country for COVID-19 symptoms through the end of May, the researchers said.
Still, additional research is needed to determine whether the decline in ER visits could be also attributed to "actual reductions in injuries or illness [due] to changing activity patterns during the pandemic" lockdown, the CDC researchers wrote.
"The striking decline in [ER] visits nationwide, with the highest declines in regions where the pandemic was most severe, suggests that the pandemic has altered the use of the [ER] by the public," researchers said.