Utah doctors warn: Don’t let COVID-19 keep you from regular medical care

A growing number patients have skipped cancer screenings, diabetes tests and other routine visits.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at the University of Utah Hospital, speaks at a news conference on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Utah doctors have a message for their patients: Don’t let fear of COVID-19 keep you from making routine medical visits.

“COVID is not going to go away any time soon, but we have to learn to live with COVID and take care of ourselves during this time,” said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at University of Utah Health.

Vinik and other officials from University of Utah Health, in a teleconference with media Tuesday, noted that Utahns were following an unfortunate national trend of avoiding routine doctor visits and screenings, because of fear of entering a clinic or hospital and catching COVID-19.

According to Sandi Gulbransen, U. Health’s chief quality officer, the rate of the U.’s regular patients getting tested for hemoglobin A1C — the prime test for diabetes — dropped from 93% in December 2019, before the pandemic, to 85% in December 2020. Similarly, the rate of people being tested for breast cancer dropped from a peak of over 70% in February to just under 66% in December, she said.

Vinik also cited national trends that showed a decline in the number of colonoscopies, mammograms and childhood immunizations at different times over the last year, during the pandemic.

“We don’t want to be in a case where we’re treating a community with advanced disease that potentially could have been treated early if we had gotten the preventative care,” Vinik said.

Early in the pandemic, patients were asked to postpone “nonessential” medical care, because hospitals were being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients or running short of medical supplies.

“We are very much encouraging patients to be seen in person whenever possible,” Vinik said. “We do have the capacity. Come get the care you need. Don’t delay necessary care.”

Dr. Kirk Knowlton, from the Intermountain Heart Institute, advised Utahns in a Facebook Live event Tuesday to be mindful of their heart health during the pandemic.

“There are still a lot of people who are afraid to seek medical attention when they need medical attention, because they are afraid they might get exposed to COVID when they come into the hospital,” Knowlton said.

People with heart disease, Knowlton said, “are at a significantly higher risk of complications that are related to COVID infection, like having to use a machine for ventilation, or even death.”

Conversely, he noted, some COVID-19 patients — some studies have shown the numbers around 20% — suffer some amount of heart damage because of the virus.

Vinik stressed that health care workers have learned a lot about COVID-19 in the year since the pandemic reached the United States, particularly about how to keep hospitals and clinics safe.

At least 80% of the clinical staff at University of Utah Hospital, Vinik said, have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital has instituted cleaning protocols and regulates airflow, and requires that all patients, staff and visitors wear masks.

All hospitals have similar policies, Knowlton noted. “Hospitals are very well prepared to make sure that people are safe from COVID exposure,” Knowlton said.

Knowlton and the University of Utah doctors stressed the continued need to follow public-health measures — such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and staying home if you get sick.

Knowlton also advised Utahns to get the COVID-19 vaccine when they are eligible. “The vaccine is really a wonderful tool, probably the best tool we have to make sure we don’t get COVID-related heart disease,” he said.