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West Virginians have done a great job protecting themselves and others during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, we have the lowest number of deaths per capita of any state in the Eastern United States. Our people and our health care system have every reason to be proud.

It is vitally important, however, that residents in our region continue to seek the health care they need when they need it. There is strong evidence that hospital admissions for strokes and heart attacks have fallen significantly during the pandemic and that deaths from these conditions have increased. People are hesitant to use emergency departments and have critical testing done, likely because they are afraid of contracting the virus and because they are concerned about over-using a stressed health care system. These factors should not be concerns in our local community.

At the present time, our local medical offices, hospitals and emergency departments are among the safest places you will visit. The relatively few active COVID-19 cases in our hospitals and those who directly care for them are kept very separate from other areas of care. The same precautions that we have successfully been practicing throughout our community are being practiced even more intensely at our medical facilities.

It is readily apparent to anyone using the health system during the past several months that the highest priority is the safety of patients. While nothing is absolute, it is important to balance the very low risk of seeking health care with the higher risk of ignoring acute and chronic health issues. After several months of attempting to safely avoid health care facilities, it is time to reconnect with your health care providers to address both new and continuing health problems.

Virtual visits by telephone and video are good options for many patients who are not ready to visit in person. A direct discussion with your personal provider can help determine the best approach.

Such direct contact is particularly important with new or worsening symptoms. If the condition seems urgent to you, do not hesitate to go to the emergency department.

In our community, it can be much more dangerous to your health and to your life to stay away. We have reached the point in which common, severe health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease, diabetes, non-COVID-19 infections, and untreated injuries pose a higher risk than the coronavirus. In addition, significant delays in preventive health measures can result in failure to identify serious disease and a loss of precious time in starting treatment.

Many aspects of our lives have been put on hold because of the COVID-19 virus. The people of our region have done a great job (so far) dealing with this pandemic. We need to use that same self-discipline and common sense to continue to care for ourselves and others in protecting our overall health. As we begin the process of cautiously resuming our former activities, taking care of our health care needs should be at the top of the list.

Stephen M. Petrany, M.D., is chairman of the Department of Family and Community Health at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

Robert Walker, M.D., is the director of the Marshall Center for Healthy Aging in Barboursville. 

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