CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — Could fears of COVID-19 be causing people to risk their health? It’s a concern for doctors across the Triangle who say fewer people are seeking emergency treatment for everything from heart attacks to appendicitis.

Dr. Abhi Mehrotra is the Vice-Chair of Operations for UNC’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“We’ve seen a decrease of about 40 to 50 percent,” he said. “I know that we, as a society, haven’t magically improved our health status, and I worry about some of our patients who aren’t seeking care, that they may need to be.”

Hospitals across the Triangle report emergency and routine hospital visits are down. WakeMed also reports a 40 percent decline in adult ER visits, and Duke Hospital reports cardiovascular admissions to the hospital are down by 65 percent. 

Some hospital systems have instituted staffing furloughs as the number of patients drops.

Dr. Rick Stouffer, the chief of cardiology at UNC, says delaying treatment can be dangerous.

“Our biggest fear is that people are going to sit at home and get sick or even die at home because they’re worried about getting COVID if they leave their home,” he said.

He relayed a recent experience about a heart patient who delayed treatment over coronavirus fears.

“A patient who came in late last week with a big heart attack and just the day before he’s been in his cardiologist’s office.” He continued, “The cardiologist was very worried about him and said, ‘You really need to go to the hospital,’ and the patient said, ‘No, I’m worried if I go there I’ll catch COVID,’ so he went home and then he came in the next morning with a heart attack.”

Doctors want patients to know they’re taking precautions to keep everyone safe. Doctors and nurses are wearing personal protective equipment and keeping patients with COVID-19 away from others.  

“We’ve changed the triaging process basically taking the triage outside,” explained Mehrotra. “We have a tent set up outside helping direct patients to the appropriate area. We have a respiratory area of the emergency area and a non-respiratory area.”

Stouffer said our state has not seem a surge in cases, but a slow increase.

“North Carolina is not New York City. We saw the nightmares coming out of New York City. Patients were in the hallways; patients weren’t getting enough ventilators,” Mehrotra said. That has not been the case in North Carolina. North Carolina, instead of being a big surge it’s a slow steady uptick, but one the medical system across the state has been able to handle.”

Doctors say if you are having any symptoms that could indicate a heart attack or stroke, it’s important to seek medical treatment. Even appendicitis or an infection can become very dangerous if left untreated.

“Patients should not feel so scared of that they can’t come to the hospital because they’re worried about getting COVID,” said Stouffer.