MILWAUKEE — Marissa Hernandez, a 31-year-old mother of six, faced a difficult decision once the coronavirus pandemic began: Should she take her 4-year-old daughter in for a scheduled surgery to replace tubes that had fallen out of her ears or should she cancel to avoid the risk of being exposed to the virus.
She decided going to the hospital wasn’t worth the risk.
“We were hearing about outbreaks in the community and scared to go to the hospital because that’s where people who are sick from the virus go,” said Hernandez, whose children are all under the age of 13. “My mom and I talked about it and decided to postpone.”
Hernandez was not alone. Many in the Milwaukee area and across the country have delayed or avoided in-person medical treatment since the pandemic began. According to the Household Pulse Survey, 40 percent of Wisconsinites polled between May 28 and June 2 said they have delayed medical care in the past four weeks because of the pandemic. Nationally, the rate was 41.4 percent.
The Household Pulse Survey is a database created by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics to track weekly changes in employment, housing, health and other statistics.
The drop in patients in the city was so drastic that the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, a public/private group consisting of most of the area’s major health systems and community health centers, issued a warning statement on April 30.
The leaders said area hospitals and clinics had seen a significant decrease in patients for emergency, routine, outpatient and critical care, and that it was cause for major concern, especially for those who delayed evaluation or treatment for chronic or acute conditions.
“If patients wait too long, they may need a longer hospitalization, have complications that could have been avoided – or worse,” said Dr. Marc Anthony de Moya, chief of trauma and acute care surgery at Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin, at the time.
Sarah Francois, director of fund development and marketing for Progressive Community Health Centers, said many patients still haven’t returned.
“We trained the public to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s what they did,” Francois said. “We’re ready to welcome back patients who have hypertension, diabetes or other chronic diseases or children who need immunizations to come in so they don’t put themselves at risk.”
Among those who fall into the high-risk category and who have experienced significant delays in treatment since the pandemic began are cancer patients, said Laurie Bertrand, executive director of the American Cancer Society Wisconsin.
Bertrand said a poll conducted in April by the society’s Cancer Action Network found that 87 percent of respondents said the pandemic caused changes, delays or disruptions to their health care. Forty-four percent of those who reported delays were in active treatment for cancer.
Bertrand said the disruptions have affected chemo and radiation treatments, regular screenings to monitor progress and even prevented some from getting an initial diagnosis.
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‘It’s a panic issue’
Maria Nieves, 57, a two-time cancer survivor who is now cancer-free, had her annual positron emission tomography, or PET scan, postponed for two months. The test can help determine if her cancer has resurfaced, and she said it also eases her fears over a return of the disease. She said she decided on her own to cancel appointments for other medical issues.
“It’s a panic issue,” Nieves said. “Do you go to treatment or postpone your appointment?”
Nieves faces the added challenge of serving as caretaker and monitoring the treatment for her father, Tomas, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in 2018.
“He gets in when he needs to, but the pandemic has made things a lot more challenging,” said Nieves, who has served as an advocate and volunteer for the American Cancer Society since her initial diagnosis in 2005.
Despite the challenges and concerns over COVID-19, Francois wants patients to know that they should feel safe about returning to hospitals and health centers.
“We’ve put in many protocols, including temperature checks; we provide masks for patients that don’t have them; and we thoroughly clean the building multiple times a day,” she said. “The key message is: ‘We’re very safe.’ ”
As for Hernandez, she learned that firsthand after her daughter’s fall from the tub resulted in a recent visit to the emergency room for stitches. Although she said she was anxious about being at the hospital, she felt comfortable with the screening process and social distancing measures that had been put in place.
Last week, her daughter finally had her surgery.
“I felt pretty good about it and had to wear a mask at the hospital the whole time,” said Hernandez, adding that her daughter was tested for COVID-19 the day before her surgery. “As far as regular doctor appointments for the other kids, I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”