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COVID-19 isn’t as scary as a heart attack, doctor says

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Dr. Eric Janis examines an image in the cardiology lab at Johnston Health in Smithfield.
Dr. Eric Janis examines an image in the cardiology lab at Johnston Health in Smithfield.
Contributed photo

SMITHFIELD — Doctors worry that Johnstonians are delaying care of heart ailments for fear of catching COVID-19.

But postponing treatment can worsen a heart problem and even prove fatal, said Dr. Eric Janis, a cardiologist on the staff at Johnston Health.

“Because of the fear of going to the doctor’s office, going to the hospital and interacting with health care, people have in many cases put off their routine cardiovascular care,” said Janis, a heart doctor for 24 years.

That’s the wrong decision, Janis said, because someone with a heart ailment could have COVID-19 without knowing it, and COVID-19 can make a heart problem worse. “There are a number of cardiovascular issues ... specifically associated with coronavirus or COVID-19 infection,” he said.

Viruses including the flu can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, Janis said. “We have clear associations of the flu and other viral illnesses raising the risk of a cardiovascular event such as heart attack or irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation,” he said.

Janis worries that people who experience atrial fibrillation or other abnormalities are staying home instead of seeking medical care. “It’s become particularly problematic with the fear of seeking medical attention during the COVID-19 outbreak and with the recommendations to quarantine at home and practice social isolation,” he said.

To help people overcome their COVID-19 fears and seek heart care, Janis and other doctors have been offering video visits and telephone calls to conduct evaluations. “We have been allowing patients to see the doctor even if that is not being done in person,” he said. “We have been doing a large number of telephone visits with patients, but more recently over the last few weeks, we have enhanced our telehealth and video visits.”

The pandemic has made use of telemedicine more widespread, and that’s a good thing, Janis said. “The ability and the expansion of the telehealth visits is something which has been delayed in the United States, and this particular pandemic has allowed insurance companies and physician offices to ramp up our telehealth capabilities,” he said.

In Johnston County, many people who have heart problems likely don’t know it, Janis said. “People who are having chest discomfort, shortness of breath or fatigue with activity really do need to be evaluated by a cardiologist,” he said. “This is something that not should be delayed unnecessarily because it could cause a worsening of their condition.”

In some cases, COVID-19 can cause heart problems, not just make an existing condition worse, Janis said. “There are a number of cardiovascular disorders that we are seeing directly as a result of COVID-19 infection,” he said.

Some COVID-19 patients have even suffered heart attacks, although the more common problem is inflammation of the heart, a condition known as myocarditis, which can mimic a heart attack.

Another worry: COVID-19 is an infection that can cause viral pneumonia, which can lower blood-oxygen levels, leading to heart problems, Janis said. “We see problems in the cardiovascular system from the low oxygen levels or from the severe stress that the infection puts on the body, puts on the lungs, which can affect the heart in many ways,” he said.

By and large, COVID-19 patients have recovered well at Johnston Health, so no one should let the fear of getting the virus stop them from seeking medical attention, Janis said. “We are practicing the greatest protection and the greatest cleanliness to try to keep all patients safe ... during this coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “We want to encourage people to contact us if they’re having any cardiovascular troubles so that we can help them.”