Megan Miedema is a mother of two in Chicago. In October, she started to feel back pain but was hesitant to go to the doctor. She worried about getting COVID-19 and bringing it back home.
“If you go to the hospital, obviously, there are, you know, a lot of people at the hospital,” Miedema says. “I feel like it would be a place that I wouldn't want to go. There's just an increased risk for COVID.”
When the pain became unbearable, Miedema finally made an appointment. She was diagnosed with shingles, a virus that causes a painful rash.
“They can't really do a lot to treat shingles,” Miedema says. “What they do is they put you on antiviral. And I think because I had delayed going, I didn't catch it soon enough. The antiviral didn't really help and like my shingles were pretty, it was pretty painful.”
Many Americans are making similar choices. A September report by the CDC found that by June, about 40 percent of adults delayed or avoided medical care due to COVID concerns. This lines up with data from the start of the pandemic — when there was a 23 percent decline in ER visits for heart attacks and a 20 percent decline for strokes.
But doctors say it is important for patients to stay on top of medical care — even amid the current COVID surge.
Dr. Bernard Richard, a primary care physician in Greenfield, Indiana, has seen patients delay medical care for strokes, heart attacks and cancer.
“Wellness exams are important,” Richard says. “These are the exams where we do the things such as pap smears, which help prevent cervical cancer. This is the time where we do those breast exams and order those mammograms and do the colon cancer and prostate cancer screening.”
Richard says some patients don’t want to overwhelm the healthcare system while frontline workers are fighting COVID.
Riann Gates lives in Indianapolis with her 18-month old son. She has delayed non-essential wellness appointments.
“I know health professionals are very overwhelmed right now,” Gates says. “And I've seen that and I just know that, if what I'm going in for is not a necessity, then it's just not needed right now.”
Gates makes exceptions for office visits that are important for her son’s health.
“I think his every few month visits are necessities just because I know he's on a vaccination schedule that he needs to stick to,” she says. “But other than that, if it wasn't something that he absolutely needed, I definitely would not be going in.
"All about virtual visits right now, if I were to need them. And same for him.”
Hospitals across the Midwest are nearing capacity as COVID cases surge. In early December, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb delayed non-emergency surgeries in an effort to help free up hospital beds.
But he urges residents to not delay medical treatment.
“If you have a serious medical condition, you should go see your doctor now,” Holcomb says. “Don't just seek it, get it the attention if you need it.”
Richard says when people delay care, they get sicker. And that is what will put stress on hospitals.
“When you get sicker, you will need a higher level of care such as a hospital emergency department or being admitted to the hospital,” he says. “So working hard to take care of yourself all along and keeping yourself healthy enough to where you don't need emergency care is something that truly helps us and helps our healthcare system right now.”
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.