COVID-19 can mask other health problems

Doctors say heart patients are especially vulnerable to confusing symptoms.
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While the risk of COVID-19 is occupying media headlines, Spectrum Health leaders are concerned residents are choosing to stay home and put off medical attention for a potential heart attack, which can exhibit similar symptoms.

Dr. John Heiser, division chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Spectrum Health, said he’s seen four cases within the last month of people with acute ventricular septal defects, or a hole in between the two main pumping chambers of the heart.

Heiser said some people are born with the condition, but a VSD also can develop later in life, where the wall between the two ventricles decays as a result of a heart attack.

“The short of it is sometimes people sit home with heart attacks,” Heiser said. “It can take some time for these complications to arise, and they come in later, short of breath, thinking they have COVID.”

The biggest common symptom between COVID-19 and a VSD is shortness of breath, Heiser said.

“I think most people who have chest pain should be calling 911 to get immediate care for that,” Heiser said. “The trouble with COVID is shortness of breath is a common finding, but it’s a late finding in the case of a heart attack.”

Heiser added other symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and a dry cough. If patients are experiencing shortness of breath without a fever, they should seek immediate medical attention. Additionally, blood tests for a potential heart attack are readily available and reliable in terms of identifying one.

While some hospitals in the U.S. are overwhelmed with a surge in COVID-19 patients, Heiser said social distancing practices in Grand Rapids have been good enough to prevent the same occurrence locally.

“Hopefully, that will persist,” Heiser said. “You can markedly influence the risk of a heart attack if you come to the hospital, and some of these complications are quite rare when heart attacks are treated in the usual way.”

Spectrum Health recently published a statement saying COVID-19 also can do alarming damage to the heart. According to study from JAMA Cardiology, one out of five patients with COVID-19 suffer heart damage, which can lead to further risk for people with a pre-existing condition.

Dr. David Wohns, division chief of cardiology for Spectrum Health, said patients with cardiovascular disease should make sure they are current with available vaccinations, including the pneumococcal vaccine, as well as follow CDC guidelines regarding sanitation and proper social distancing.

“For people with underlying heart conditions, the infection can be more serious with a greater chance of hospitalization and even death,” Wohns said. “This is especially true for those over 65 years of age with coronary disease or hypertension.”

Wohns agreed with Heiser’s concern that not getting immediate treatment for heart-related symptoms can result in long-term consequences or even death.

“My recommendation is that any person with prior heart disease or at risk of heart disease who is experiencing chest symptoms or shortness of breath reach out to their primary care physician or cardiovascular provider for guidance as soon as possible,” Wohns said.

Spectrum Health Now, the group’s virtual treatment option, also is available for heart patients not experiencing a need for immediate care and who wish to stay home to prevent contracting or spreading COVID-19.

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