The Stroke Association has warned that rising Omicron cases are likely to produce a spike in the number of untreated strokes. They point to similar spikes from earlier in the pandemic, with nearly one in three stroke survivors between March and June of 2020 not seeking immediate medical attention due to the pandemic. They warn that delays in ambulance response times will likely worsen the issue. Some people leave dangerous medical emergencies untreated for fear of being a burden to the health service.
Juliet Bouverie, Chief Executive of the Stroke Association, said: “When COVID cases rise as quickly as they are doing now, that sets off alarm bells at our charity and everyone involved in the treatment of stroke.
“More Omicron cases is likely to mean more preventable deaths and disability due to stroke, as people delay seeking emergency medical attention.
“We know that people get scared to go to hospital when cases rise but stroke is a life-threatening condition.
“Fear of catching COVID and feeling like a burden on the NHS stopped people calling 999 in the past. “
The association points to admission rates to hospital stroke units over the course of the pandemic.
From March to May of 2020 there was a 10.3 percent drop in admissions.
This could have caused as much as a 54 percent increase in people dying from strokes in their homes.
There was also a 29-52 percent reduction in first prescriptions for medications, meaning people may not have gotten access to medications that reduce their risk of a stroke.
Diagnosis rates for risk factors such as high blood pressure have also declined.
These would normally be screened for during in person medical appointments, and medications prescribed to minimise their risk.
Bouverie says: “After nearly two years in the pandemic we know that many people haven’t had their high blood pressure diagnosed because there haven’t been as many regular, in-person appointments with medical professionals such as GPs.
“That means more people are living with undetected high blood pressure and are at high risk of stroke.
“As a result, we could see even more people having a stroke this Christmas than in previous years.”
The increased risk of COVID-19 transmission in hospitals, alongside staffing shortages, have led to increased numbers of routine appointments and non-essential surgeries being delayed.
Within the peak 12 weeks of the first wave there were 28 million such operations cancelled, including cancer operations.
An editorial in the BMJ warns that these growing delays are likely to have consequences on not just the physical health of patients but on their mental health.
They caution that the NHS will need to expand capacity and funding even after the pandemic has declined.