Protecting your heart is crucial during a pandemic

This article was updated on Nov. 1, 2021 to reflect recent information and research.

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • People with heart disease are at higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19, and they may be understandably anxious about leaving home these days, even to see the doctor.

  • Providence cardiologist James Beckerman, M.D., explains why managing heart conditions and staying in contact with your doctor is more important than ever right now.

  • Ari Robicsek, M.D., Providence CMAO co-conducted a study showing that patients visiting the ER for non-COVID related illnesses and conditions were unlikely to catch the virus.

Chances are you already know the importance of monitoring your heart health. That’s especially true if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease or high blood pressure or you’ve been told you’re at risk for developing a cardiac condition. However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has left many people wondering what’s the best and safest way to get care.

“People with heart disease, including those with high blood pressure, are at a higher risk of complications once they have contracted COVID-19,” states Dr. James Beckerman, cardiologist at Providence. “For that reason, many people have been anxious to leave home – even for the doctor’s office. In reality, managing heart conditions and maintaining communication with your doctor is more important than ever in a pandemic so that you can stay healthy and safe and further reduce your risk.”

Delaying care because you're afraid of getting COVID-19 can lead to long-term health consequences. 

Delaying care because you're afraid of getting COVID-19 can lead to long-term health consequences. In addition, a study co-conducted by Ari Robiscek, M.D., chief medical analytics officer at Providence showed that patients are not at an increased risk for acquiring COVID-19 at a Providence emergency department. Providence has also implemented safety steps including masking and sanitizing to make your safety our top priority. If you notice new or worsening symptoms or have concerns about your condition, do not delay seeking medical care.

Why caring for your heart matters during a pandemic

Skipping appointments or not being as diligent with your cardiac care plan in the short-term can lead to long-term health issues, including heart attack, stroke and heart damage. It can also put you at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 and in some stark cases, even dying from the virus.

Cardiovascular disease contributes to a higher COVID-related death rate

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) found that the death rate from COVID-19 for people with cardiovascular disease is approximately 10.5%, compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimated 0.4% risk of death for the general population. 

Cardiovascular disease weakens the immune system

One reason people with heart disease may be at higher risk of COVID-19 is because of a weaker immune system, which makes it harder to fight off infections. Another worry for doctors is that COVID-19 can damage the cardiovascular system – a serious issue for people already managing high blood pressure, heart disease and heart failure. Some individuals who get COVID-19 develop heart conditions after infection, too.

Delaying care for any serious illness or condition can lead to serious consequences

A recent study in the Journal of Hospital Medicine shows that despite hospitalizations dramatically decreasing during the pandemic, death rates for non-COVD-related illnesses rose. Researchers, including Dr. Robiscek, believe that this was, in part, due to patients' reluctance to go to the hospital because they were afraid of catching COVID-19.

Yet, additional research which indicates you're unlikely to catch COVID-10 in the hospital should encourage you to not delay seeking medical care when facing an emergency. 

Why you should still get care for your heart during a pandemic

Recently, Dr. Robicsek collaborated with a peer epidemiologist to ask the question: Are hospitals really unsafe? Their study on patients who visited a Providence emergency department found that there was no difference in a rise in cases among those who were and weren't exposed to COVID-19. That means it is safe, even encouraged, to seek medical care at the hospital immediately if you are experiencing chest pain, or any other serious medical condition. The alternative - not seeking medical care out of fear of catching COVID-19 - could have very serious, if not fatal, consequences.

It is safe, even encouraged, to seek medical care at the hospital immediately if you are experiencing chest pain, or any other serious medical condition. The alternative - not seeking medical care out of fear of catching COVID-19 - could have very serious consequences.

To learn more, watch Providence CMAO Dr. Robicsek discuss his research in a recent webinar:

While we strongly recommend seeking medical care at the hospital in an emergency, there are plenty of things you can do at home to stay healthy and safe.

Tips for managing heart conditions

A healthy diet, regular exercise, and managing stress are just a few ways to manage heart disease and high blood pressure. But stay-at-home orders and uncertainty during COVID-19 have made that a little more challenging than usual.

“The stress of COVID and not being able to get out and stay active can make it harder to manage your condition, but it doesn’t make it impossible,” Phillip Beasley, practice manager, Cardiology Associates at Covenant Medical Group, reminds readers.

The American Heart Association offers some advice to help you at home, including:

  • Follow your doctor’s advice including taking prescription medicine as directed.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Avoid over-the-counter medicines that could interfere with your blood pressure, including decongestants or ibuprofen.
  • Talk to your doctor about prescription medicines that can raise blood pressure, like oral birth control or immunosuppressants.
  • Monitor your blood pressure with an at-home blood pressure cuff.
  • Get creative to stay active. Go for a walk or try exercises like high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Just be sure not to overdo it.
  • Make healthy eating a priority at home by cooking with clean ingredients.

And, of course, make sure you are taking steps to reduce your risk of getting COVID-19, including washing your hands, wearing a mask, and following social distancing (physical distancing) guidelines.

Tips for preventing heart conditions

Taking good care of your heart is good advice for everyone – whether you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, are at risk or currently feel fit as a fiddle.

Manage stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety can manifest in many different ways – from grief, lack of energy, loss of interest in favorite activities, or being unmotivated to eat healthily and get active.

That can be troubling as stress and anxiety impact your blood pressure in the short and long term. Eating an unhealthy diet or skipping workouts can ultimately lead to a higher risk of heart disease or complications.

Make your mental health a priority and gain physical benefits:

  • Exercise 20-30 minutes, 5 days a week.
  • Eat healthily.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Connect with friends and family members virtually.
  • Talk to a mental health professional.
  • Try a meditation app to refocus.
  • Sweat out stress by cleaning your house.

Know your risk of heart disease

It can be easy to brush health questions or concerns aside during a pandemic. But if you have a family history of heart conditions or other health issues, it’s important now more than ever to stay on track with care from your doctor

“High blood pressure doesn’t always have recognizable symptoms,” explains Dr. Kyler Barkley, cardiologist at Cardiology Associates, Covenant Medical Group. “Regular well visits and screenings can identify risk factors and give you a baseline to create a prevention plan.”

Know when, where to get help

Most importantly, make sure you know what to do if your symptoms worsen or you experience a life-threatening emergency, like a heart attack.

Our emergency departments have not been seeing the typical number of patients with heart attack symptoms or other cardiac events and it’s not because these medical emergencies aren’t occurring. Heart attacks and stroke happen, even during a global pandemic.

"Our emergency departments have not been seeing the typical number of patients with heart attack symptoms or other cardiac events and it’s not because these medical emergencies aren’t occurring. Heart attacks and stroke happen, even during a global pandemic. Unfortunately, people are scared to go to the ER or are concerned about burdening their local hospital. But don’t let those fears stop you from coming in – we are here to help you safely get the care you need,” says Dr. Jason Strefling, Providence cardiologist at Cardiology Associates, Covenant Medical Group.

Call 911 immediately if you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, including:

  • A rise in blood pressure - if you have a cuff, monitor for 180/120 or above
  • Chest or back pain
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Loss of vision
  • Difficulty breathing or speaking

An emergency medical technician can start administering lifesaving care in your home and get you to the nearest hospital for additional testing and treatment. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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Find a doctor

Cardiac screenings save lives. Find a cardiologist or primary care doctor using our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

Seven safety steps

Don’t delay care if you need care

Virtual Visits continue to be a great option for care during COVID-19

What will healthcare look like post-COVID?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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