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CHICAGO — The demand for heart doctors is taking a surprising dip in the COVID-19 crisis.

WGN’s Dina Bair spoke with Dr. Mark Ricciardi, NorthShore University HealthSystem interventional cardiologist, outside Evanston hospital. He said his patient load is down — a strange phenomenon during what is typically a busy season when it comes to caring for heart patients. 

“It’s very surprising to us but I think it’s real historically when we see people with the flu and during flu season we expect heart attack rates to go up and that’s why we recommend vaccines for influenza is because it may lower the risk of a heart attack and yet here we are in the middle of a viral pandemic and we’re seeing fewer and fewer heart attacks even compared to normal part of year,” he said.

The numbers tell the story. During a typical week at the hospital, Ricciardi and his colleagues at Northshore University Healthsystem see about 14 heart attack patients. In the month of March, they saw about 9.

Since the stay-at-home order was issued, they’ve averaged four patients a week. So far in April, the numbers are even lower.

The downward trend has hit other parts of the U.S. and internationally in China, Spain and Italy. 

So, where are all the heart attack patients?

“My concern is patients are trying to avoid going to hospitals literally at all costs,” Ricciardi said.  

The theory begs the question — how do you ignore a heart attack? Particularly symptoms like chest pressure and squeezing discomfort in the central chest or left side that radiates to the shoulder arm or jaw; sweating, nausea, palpitations, a feeling of doom and shortness of breath.

“There are heart attacks that are immediately life threatening in fact a certain percent of patients don’t even make it to the emergency department. They die before arrival but on the other end of the spectrum there are people who have smaller what we call infarcts or heart attacks that believe it or not may be easier to ignore at home and ride out so you can actually ride out a heart attack,” Ricciardi said.

Stress plays a critical role and during the pandemic it may have shifted from daily concerns to other worries.

“The stress of work for many people is real the stress of commuting dealing with their boss and all the things that have to do with going to work and daily life is real but the stress of worrying about getting infected by a deadly disease the stress of worrying about your elderly mom or aunt or father is tremendous the stress of losing paychecks getting furloughed or laid off I can’t imagine that stress is less,” Ricciardi said.

While fear of coming to the hospital is a viable theory, Ricciardi said another is more hopeful in nature. 

“I guess it’s possible although again this is hopeful thinking, it almost may be magical thinking it’s possible that people are just living healthier lives outside of the stress, they are eating better they are not going out as much maybe smoking less maybe exercising more but again this is wishful thinking,” he said. “I hope it’s true but my concern is that people are ignoring their symptoms or avoiding the ER literally at all costs.”

Ricciardi said the downstream risks of ignoring a heart attack could lead to arrhythmias, heart failure and weakened heart function. If you believe you are having a heart attack, call 911 or your doctor right away.

Cardiologists and those who treat heart patients say they will learn a lot from this pandemic and its impact on heart patients.