Aug. 7 (UPI) -- People who have a severe heart attack are more than twice as likely to die during the COVID-19 pandemic than they would have been in 2018-19, before the disease impacted the United States, according to an analysis published Friday by JAMA Cardiology.
Those who suffer a type of heart attack in which one of the heart's major arteries is blocked were 2.4 times more likely to die during the pandemic period, likely because they put off seeking medical care, the researchers said.
They said this delay might be linked to reluctance to obtain treatment for fear of getting infected with the new coronavirus in the hospital.
A nearly 50% drop in the rate of heart attack-associated hospitalization was reported during the first five weeks of the pandemic in the United States, from Feb. 23 through the end of March, the researchers said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed healthcare delivery worldwide, and recent reports have revealed a disturbing finding -- a substantial decrease in the hospitalization rate for patients with an acute heart attack," study co-author Dr. Tyler Gluckman told UPI.
Hospitalizations for heart attacks increased by more than 10 cases week from March 29 through mid-May, even as the number of new coronavirus infections rose in much of the country.
The number of people seeking treatment for heart attack, however, is still lower than researchers say it should be, based comparisons to 2018-19.
"Beginning March 29, heart attack hospitalizations began to increase," but they did so "at a slower rate [and] had not yet returned to" pre-pandemic levels, said Gluckman, a researcher in the Center for Cardiovascular Analytics at Providence St. Joseph Health in Portland, Ore.
The findings are "worrisome" because they suggest that heart attack patients might not be seeking vital medical care for fear of getting infected with the virus, he said.
For the study, Gluckman and colleagues reviewed hospitalization data for 49 facilities in the Providence St. Joseph Health system from Dec. 30, 2018, through May 16 of this year. The hospitals are situated in six states: Alaska, Washington, Montana, Oregon, California and Texas.
More than 15,000 people were admitted to the Providence St. Joseph hospitals for heart attacks during the study period, the researchers said.
However, from Feb. 23 through March 29, heart attack-related hospitalizations across the system declined by 19 cases per week compared to 2018-2019, when the facilities had about 222 cases each week.
The 2.4-fold increase in death risk from the serious type of heart attack is based on the number of deaths caused by the serious form of heart attack at Providence St. Josephs' hospitals from Feb. 23 through May 16, compared to expectations for the period based on 2018-19 data.
Patients hospitalized for a heart attack during the "pandemic period" -- from Feb. 23 through May 16 -- were, on average, one to three years younger than those hospitalized in 2018-19, had a shorter length of stay and were more likely to be discharged to home, as opposed to a nursing or rehab facility, Gluckman said.
These trends could be the result of hospital efforts to maintain bed availability or patient preference for early discharge due to fears of contracting COVID-19 while in the hospital, he said.
"[Our] study adds to the growing body of literature that has noted worsened outcomes among those with non-infectious diseases during the pandemic," Gluckman told UPI. "It also reinforces that while social distancing with COVID-19 is recommended, medical distancing is not."