One man waited three weeks to go to the hospital after experiencing cardiac symptoms and now has more heart damage than he should. Another patient waited too long with a hernia and developed a serious gastrointestinal infection. 

Those are just a couple of cases at North Shore Medical Center in Salem in which people delayed going to the hospital due to concerns about the coronavirus. Now, 10 weeks after telling people to stay away from the hospital unless it was an emergency, officials are trying to convince the public that hospitals are again a safe place to get treatment.

"We want to get the message out that there's a consequence to waiting," North Shore Medical Center President Dr. David Roberts said. "And some of that consequence is not reversible. You damage your heart more than you should've, it's not going to get better."

A woman who found a lump on her breast called her doctor, and went in for a mammography. She was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

She is one of the patients who have not steered clear of hospitals and have seen the benefits, said Phil Cormier, president of Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals.

"If that patient had waited and ignored the symptoms, the outcome could have been worse," he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker ordered hospitals on March 15 to delay elective surgeries and non-essential procedures to allow them to handle a surge of patients with COVID-19. According to the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, hospitals were losing more than $46 million per day due to the drop-off in visits.

With the number of COVID-19 cases declining, Baker on May 18 allowed hospitals to begin providing a limited number of services if they have enough bed capacity. Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals and North Shore Medical Center all have enough capacity to begin accepting non-COVID-19 patients, officials said.

Cormier said Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals have actually seen nine times as many patients without COVID-19 as those with the virus since their first case on March 13, so they are prepared for the return of more non-COVID patients.

"We know how to treat patients who aren't COVID-positive and keep them separate," he said. "During that 10 weeks, we've learned a lot of lessons about how to take care of COVID patients and how to minimize that spread."

Taking several steps to safety

Under Baker's guidance, hospitals can begin offering "high-priority preventative services," including pediatric care and immunizations; diagnostic procedures for high-risk patients; and procedures that if deferred would lead to "substantial worsening of disease." Examples include orthopedic procedures for significant functional impairment, organ transplants, and removal of malignant skin lesions.

Cormier said patients at Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals are screened three times for COVID-19 symptoms — over the phone, when you go the doctor's office, and when you go the hospital. Doctor's offices are allowing people to wait in their car for their appointment.

Roberts said North Shore Medical Center has taken several steps to insure safety, including testing every patient for COVID-19 and keeping those who have tested positive separate.

"There's never any chance you're going to be put into a room where we don't know what their status is," he said.

Employees are screened for symptoms every day, visitors are restricted, everybody wears a mask, and the hospital is thoroughly cleaned, Roberts said.

"The fear you have that you might be exposed to COVID is I think unwarranted given the amount of planning we've done," he said.

For surgeries involving COVID-positive patients, Roberts said the hospital has created six "anterooms" with negative pressure to minimize spread.

Don't hesitate with your health

Cormier said people should call their primary care office for minor problems. Many doctors have been treating patients by phone or video, and that trend is likely to continue, he said.

"Tele-health has taken off remarkably over the last 10 weeks," Cormier said. "It will be here to stay."

With more businesses reopening, people are facing difficult decisions about where they can go and still feel safe. But Roberts said people should not hesitate when it comes to their health.

"We are probably the safest place right now," he said. "I think the right choice is to say, 'Hey, I'm calling my doc.'"

The Massachusetts Nurses Union joined several other states' nurses unions in sending out a press release on Tuesday warning against hospitals reopening too early. The unions said nurses must have the proper protective equipment or hospitals will "remain infection epicenters that continue to infect, sicken, and kill nurses and health care workers."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@gloucestertimes.com.

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