What happens if you have a medical emergency in the era of COVID-19?

TORONTO — As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across Canada, health officials have issued a stark warning: our healthcare system is under threat.

Amid ongoing instructions to self-isolate, the cancellation of elective procedures, and the tightening of hospital screening measures, Canadians with pre-existing medical conditions have been left with serious concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus.

But one question in particular dominates the conversation: what happens if I have a medical emergency in the midst of a pandemic?

“An emergency is an emergency,” Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, infectious disease specialist with Toronto’s University Health Network, told CTVNews.ca by phone.

“People shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they should still seek the emergency room if they are acutely in distress. It should never be discouraged based on any degree of concern that the healthcare system is under strain.”

Sharkawy, who is working on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, says that those with chronic conditions or anyone experiencing immediate distress should not hesitate to seek emergency medical assessment.

He notes that emergency rooms are still triaging the most severe patient cases as they normally would.

“We do not want people to think there is no recourse for them,” he said.

Those who requite in-patient care will likely notice an eerie “quiet tension” in hospital hallways, noting that most have shuttered non-essential services.

“The amount of volume in a lot of parts of the hospital is much slower,” he said. “There’s a certain ominous feeling to things. But in the emergency room there is a palpable stress.”

Hospitals across the country have taken steps to limit potential exposures of the virus, cancelling any procedures and surgeries that are not urgent, emergent or oncological, in most cases.

B.C.’s Fraser Health, for example, notes that it will prioritize urgent and emergency procedures and the Ontario Ministry of Health has mandated that hospitals ramp down elective surgeries to help maximize hospital resources and prioritize services.

“Elective surgeries are a non-existent entity in the last couple of weeks,” said Sharkawy of his own hospital.

“There’s simply no rational or justification to mobilize resources for something that can potentially wait a number of weeks when you’re theoretically exposing people to undue risk.”

Sharkawy notes that these risks don’t just pertain to patients. Should an elective patient expose healthcare workers to the virus, they would need to be isolated, putting further strain on the system.

“We’re all really needed to prioritize every ounce of energy and ability that we can to prepare for this becoming a crisis here—and we’re all anticipating that,” he added.

Sharkawy notes that if you plan on visiting an ill friend or family member, keep in mind that most hospitals have instated strict screening measures at entrances and are limiting the number of visitors allowed for each patient.


First responders may not be experiencing a decrease in call volume amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but they have noticed changes in patient behaviour.

“What we’re really experiencing out in the field when we’re getting to ‘normal calls,’ like chest pain and cardiac incidents, is that people are a little more apprehensive about going to a hospital where there is any potential for more exposure,” Troy Clifford, provincial president of Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, the union that represents paramedics and emergency dispatchers in the province, told CTVNews.ca.

Clifford notes that patients are likely stressed about ongoing instructions not to leave their homes, which could lead them to deny medical assistance.

“Denial in heart attacks is a classic sign and symptom — now its two-fold,” he said by phone.

“We want to really manage those patients because now you’ve added the stress of being a burden and going to a medical facility when you have these conditions.”

Paramedic services across the country have noted that patients will be asked COVID-19 screening questions when speaking to dispatchers. Clifford also notes that the union is working with the Ministry of Health to follow protocols that will protect the health and safety of patients and paramedics.

However, the same Clifford echoed the same sentiment: if you are experiencing a medical emergency, don’t hesitate to seek help.​

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