A trip to the emergency room is already stressful enough. Add in the fear of catching coronavirus (COVID-19), and the stress only multiplies. Since the virus began rearing its brutal head in Birmingham — shuttering businesses and canceling countless events in its wake — the number of emergency room visits have greatly decreased. Not because people aren’t getting sick, though.

“In early March, everything was normal for us. Coronavirus hadn’t really affected Birmingham yet. And then all of the sudden it was like someone hit a switch and no one came to the emergency department,” says Dr. Bruce Burns, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine for Brookwood Baptist Health. “We were down probably 60 percent of the volume that we normally saw.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine

Dr. Bruce Burns, Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brookwood Baptist Health

What Dr. Burns and his colleagues came to realize was that many people still needed medical services — they were just afraid to visit their local emergency department. Usually, Dr. Burns says, Brookwood Baptist Health systems treats a steady amount of patients suffering heart attacks and strokes. However, with the onset of COVID-19, those “regular” cases dropped dramatically. “They still had strokes. They still had heart attacks. They just didn’t come to the hospital,” he says. “And that’s horrible.”

To combat these growing fears, area hospitals began implementing new systems to improve patient safety and cut down on contact between hospital staff and those visiting the emergency department.

“There’s no waiting room — no families waiting around,” Dr. Burns says. “A part of that precaution was prompted because of state law, but it also prevents people from sitting around and being exposed to other individuals who might have the virus.”

Instead of entering the hospital, family members can now drop off patients and give their contact information to hospital employees, who keep them abreast of how their loved one is doing. Most hospitals have tents set up outside, so there’s no need to actually enter the facility. Also, Dr. Burns adds, if patients exhibit signs of infection, they stay in a separate area of the facility, as to not infect others. These areas are in sectioned-off quarters with secured doors, so zero contact between patients occurs.

To accommodate new safety standards, Brookwood Baptist Health hospitals have rearranged where high-risk patients stay while in the emergency department, as to not infect others with the virus.

“We’re also practicing social distancing — we’re 6 feet away from everyone at all times,” Dr. Burns says. “Normally, you would have a doctor come to the door and shake your hand or pat you on the back, be very friendly. Now, I’m in the doorway, 6 feet away, when I start asking questions. And that’s not to be unfriendly. That’s to be safe.”

Simple precautions — like wearing face masks and routinely sanitizing surfaces — are also in place at the five Brookwood Baptist Health hospitals. They’ve also allowed extra time between patient visits to thoroughly clean and disinfect equipment and other high-touch areas. Hospital employees, Dr. Burns says, have been taking every extra measure possible to ensure safety. Because coronavirus is on the forefront of so many minds, Dr. Burns says it’s been a top priority to make sure all those who enter the hospital’s doors are assured that they are in a safe, responsible environment.

“The main message we want to get across is that the emergency department is open,” Dr. Burns says. “And it’s safe. Safety is of the utmost priority.”

To learn more about Brookwood Baptist Health or to find a physician or hospital near you, visit brookwoodbaptistmedicalcenter.com.

This article is sponsored by Brookwood Baptist Health.