Symptoms to never ignore – even during a pandemic

April 20, 2020

The novel coronavirus has made people rethink their movements — how often they go to the grocery story, for example — but one thing COVID shouldn’t scare people from doing: calling 911 during a medical emergency.

UCHealth specially trained team does a deep clean of an ambulance making it safe for EMS to response to medical emergencies during the pandemic.
UCHealth specially trained team does a deep clean of an ambulance making it safe for EMS to response to medical emergencies during this pandemic. Photo: UCHealth.

“We have created the industry leading standard for cleaning our ambulances and preparing our team to keep both them and our patients safe,” said Tim Seidel, director of UCHealth Emergency Medical Services.

UCHealth EMS has a fleet of emergency response vehicles that cover 3,300-square-miles in Larimer and Weld counties in northern Colorado.

Expecting a big flu season, EMS began training in January to use an electrostatic decomposition sterilization system to keep their ambulances virus free. So when the novel coronavirus pandemic took center stage, EMS had the right equipment and processes in place to defend against this new invading virus.

That system: An electrostatic spray gun that releases disinfectants onto even the toughest-to-reach surfaces. The disinfectant bonds to those surfaces, denying places for the virus. UCHealth disinfects the back of ambulances where patients receive emergent care, and the front where the EMTs and paramedics spend much of their time.

The cleaning process takes about 15-20 minutes and is done by a specially trained team of UCHealth employees, Seidel explained. Cleaning occurs after transport of every patient and again at the end of each shift.

“It doesn’t matter if we transported a COVID patient or not, our ambulances get that deep cleaning daily,” he said. “It’s about protecting the patients as much as it is about protecting the providers because we need these providers to stay healthy to be able to care for these patients.”

He said that his staff wears commercial-grade masks at all times and PPE (personal protective equipment is at the ready.

“We are asking questions of symptoms as we walk in (to care for a patient) in order to figure out if this is something we need to look at in a different light, such as needing to don gowns because this patient will need a life-saving procedure that could release, potentially, (novel coronavirus) into the air,” Seidel said.

“This is all done so we can be there in those dire moments, like a heart attack.

Dr. Nathan Anderson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, explains what symptoms shouldn’t be ignored, even during a pandemic.

UCHealth specially trained employee uses an electrostatic sprayer as part of an disinfection process so EMS can be safe when responsing to medical emergencies during this pandemic.
UCHealth specially trained employee uses an electrostatic sprayer as part of an disinfection process so EMS can safely respond to medical emergencies during this coronavirus pandemic. Photo: UCHealth.

Symptoms of stroke

 If you suddenly have a hard time talking, struggle to control or move your limbs, or experience facial weakness or drooping, you may be having a stroke. Seek help immediately.

“Time is tissue, time is brain,” Anderson said. “The sooner we have a chance to diagnose and intervene, the better the outcome.”

Often with a stroke, it’s up to an observer to call 911 for help. “Someone experiencing a stroke really is in no position to do anything and must rely on those around them.”

Chest pain

An unusual pain, pressure or tightness in the chest or anywhere else in the upper trunk, such as the mid-back, shoulder or base of the neck, may be a sign of a heart attack.

Keep in mind that symptoms can be very different for each individual. Pain may be steady, or may come and go. It may be so severe it feels heavy or crushing, or it may feel mild but strange.

Pain may also be accompanied by nausea or indigestion, sweating, shortness of breath, fatigue and lightheadedness. Never try to ride out the symptoms of a heart attack.

“So many times people will say, ‘I didn’t think it was anything,’ or ‘I didn’t want to bother you,’” Anderson said. “But again, time is tissue. Injury can progress in untreated heart problems.”

Difficulty breathing

EMT responding to a medical emergency during the pandemic.
UCHealth EMS is ready to respond to medical emergencies during this pandemic was they have strong cleaning and response protocols they follow to keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Photo: UCHealth.

If you’re short of breath, drawing a breath without getting any benefit from the air, or having trouble breathing, seek medical attention.

“If it’s hard to breathe, that needs attention,” Anderson said. “Nothing is so elemental to life and imminently threatening as the inability to breathe.”

Issues such as asthma, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia and chronic lung disease may be to blame. Since shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19, be honest with the 911 dispatcher and let him or her know that you may have the virus so that emergency responders can protect themselves.

Trauma, burns and head pain

If you experience serious trauma, such as a bad fall – especially one in which you hurt your head or spine – seek medical attention immediately. Similarly, get help for serious burns, or burns that are deep, large, turn the skin dry and leathery, look charred, or have portions that are white, brown or black.

man getting EKG at UCHealth. Medical emergency during pandemic should not be ignored.
Many people are keeping their distance from hospitals and doctors’ offices during this pandemic, but it’s critical to continue to get treatment for medical emergencies. Photo: UCHealth.

And never ignore a serious, sudden headache, especially when it presents with fever, confusion, faintness or loss of consciousness. A headache of that intensity could signal a serious issue, such as a stroke or very high blood pressure.

Abdominal pain

An unusual pain in the abdominal area, or anywhere below the ribs and above the hips, can be cause for seeking emergency medical help, especially if the pain is new, severe, or accompanied by nausea, vomiting and fever.

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There are various causes of abdominal pain, including appendicitis, kidney stones, a tumor, diverticulitis and complications of undiagnosed pregnancies.

Remember: in many cases, seconds count. And even with the threat of COVID-19, it’s important to address serious medical conditions. Don’t hesitate to call 911 and go to the emergency department when it’s necessary.

“More and more injury can be occurring as time is passing,” Anderson said. “It’s better to overreact and over respond and be reassured, then to underreact and under-respond and miss the chance to intervene meaningfully.”

(Kati Blocker also contributed to this story.)


About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at