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Experts: Amid COVID-19, call 911 for stroke, heart attack symptoms

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Experts: Amid COVID-19, call 911 for stroke, heart attack symptoms

The COVID-19 pandemic has some people fearing hospitals, but Houston-area health officials and the American Heart Association say calling 911 when experiencing symptoms of stroke or heart attack is critical.

In Houston, there has been a 20 percent decrease in calls to 911 for stroke and heart attack symptoms since the novel coronavirus began there, according to David Persse, MD, health authority for the Houston Health Department and medical director for the Houston Fire Department.

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“This is so unfortunate as EMS workers and emergency department personnel are now highly skilled and experienced in protecting patients from infection,” Persse said. “Heart attacks and strokes can be fought, but only if one calls for help early. Time is brain; time is heart muscle. Don’t delay.”

The American Heart Association has a new public awareness campaign called “Don’t Die of Doubt” to assure people that if stroke or heart attack symptoms are occurring, a hospital is the best place to be.

AHA Senior Director of Communications Stacy Christian called the decline in 911 calls “alarming” because while there is a pandemic going on, health emergencies are still happening and don’t take a break.

“It’s just that people are fearful to go into the hospital because of the pandemic. They’re fearful that they will catch the coronavirus. So they’re staying at home, and then they’re dying unnecessarily of stroke or a heart attack,” Christian said.

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She said time is of the essence particularly for strokes because the more time that goes by without treatment can mean more deterioration of the brain. She encouraged people to learn the acronym FAST, which stands for Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty and Time to call 911.

“If you or someone that you know or love is experiencing what you think are symptoms of a stroke, if you look at their face, and they have facial drooping; if you ask them to lift their arm, and they’re unable to do so and it drops down to their side; if their speech is slurred, then it’s time to call 911,” Christian said.

According to the AHA website, some of the warning signs of a heart attack include chest pain, discomfort in the upper body (arm or both arms, back, jaw or stomach) and shortness of breath.

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Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, is the executive director of Harris County Public Health and a member of the AHA Houston Board of Directors. He wants residents to know that hospitals are safe for them during an emergency.

“If you need to go to the hospital, you should. We understand that people might not want to go to hospitals right now, but you shouldn’t neglect your health due to fear,” Shah added.

He also reminded those that need to go to the hospital to remember to wear a face covering for their health and that of others.

For more information about the American Heart Association, visit

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