With many currently focused on avoiding COVID-19, other aspects of personal health can be overlooked. With this in mind, doctors at WellSpan Health and the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center are urging the public to keep taking care of their mental and physical wellbeing.

Since late March, WellSpan has seen a 50 percent decrease in patients in their hospital emergency departments, they said in a recent release. They attributed this decrease to patients who are afraid to go to the hospital from fear of contracting COVID-19.

“Those fears are good and they’re healthy and we want people to realize that this is a bad disease that can kill people,” said Dr. Mark Goedecker, vice president and regional medical director of WellSpan Medical Group. “On the other hand, we want to make sure that patients also understand that we are doing everything possible. 

“If they would come into one of our offices or hospitals, we would protect them. We would keep them safe.”

Some of these patients may be ignoring the early warning signs of severe ailments such as heart attacks and strokes and not seeking medical attention right away. 

This is especially concerning, as many hospitals have observed that COVID-19 patients in their 30s and 40s are more prone to stroke than others in their age group.

“When it comes to stroke care, we say ‘time is brain,’” said Grant Sorkin, M.D., neurosurgeon and surgical director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at WellSpan York Hospital, in an interview with LebTown. “How quickly patients receive treatment is critical.

“At our stroke center we’re able to diagnose and treat patients rapidly, but only if the patient acts on the early warning signs. It can be a life-saving move when seconds count.”

The early warning signs of a stroke include “face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, or disorientation,” according to WellSpan. Common early signs of a heart attack include discomfort in the chest or other parts of the upper body, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, and lightheadedness.

When individuals experience these symptoms, they are urged to call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

“Be mindful of symptoms of a stroke or heart attack and take action when necessary,” said Goedecker. “In an emergency we want to make sure we see our patients as quickly as possible, to determine the best way to treat them when time is critical.”

WellSpan has taken several measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities. They have dedicated areas for COVID-19 patients and the staff that treat them, limited entry points at all hospitals, limited visitations, and required personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff. Additionally, those that visit their facilities are provided with masks and will not need to wait in waiting rooms. 

“We are very confident that these measures will prevent the spread,” said Goedecker. “We are working with the Department of Health, we are following the CDC guidelines. 

“We are essentially implementing the best practices that the CDC says you should do.”

WellSpan is also offering virtual visits so that people with non-urgent care needs do not need to physically go to an office. They encourage their patients to take advantage of this option and reach out to their primary care physician’s office if they have any questions about their health or medication.

Read More: Local healthcare providers pivot to telehealth for non-coronavirus care

The Lebanon VA Medical Center has a similar message for its patients. In a release in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, which is every May, the VA urges veterans to continue accessing their mental health services from home.

“[Mental Health Awareness Month] is simply making sure that we are ensuring that our mental health is something that thrives, that we are investing in our mental wellbeing,” said Christine Brubaker, Local Recovery & Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Coordinator in Lebanon VAMC’s Behavioral Health and Sciences Department, in an interview with LebTown. “We want to make sure that everyone has positive mental health.”

While there is no longer in-person mental health care for non-urgent cases at the VA, they are offering a variety of virtual mental health resources. Such resources include phone and video therapy appointments, online prescription management, and text-message reminders with information about COVID-19. 

They also have two smartphone apps available, COVID Coach, which helps veterans practice self-care during the pandemic, Mindfulness Coach, which helps with mindfulness and provides guided meditation, and VA Video Connect (VVC), which allows veterans to access video therapy from anywhere.

Read More: Lebanon VA offers care through video chat app

“Due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, and out of concern for our local Veterans, we are honoring current physical distancing guidelines,” said Robert W. Callahan, Jr in the release. “Through VA’s virtual care tools, we are able to leverage available technology to make sure that our patients and staff are as safe as possible during this time.”

Even if they have not previously enrolled in mental health services, the VA wants to emphasize that “now is the time” for veterans to seek help. The VA is doing intake appointments via phone or video sessions “when it’s clinically appropriate,” so veterans who have not used their mental health resources before can begin to do so. Those interested can either call (717) 272 6621 ext. 5105 or use their online portal to schedule an appointment.

Read More: The VA wants you to know: Help is available for veterans who need it

“We have so many different resources and so many different platforms available, as well as your community of choice,” said Brubaker. “We want to make sure that veterans are aware that the VA seeks to assist them. 

“We need to care for our veterans during this pandemic, and we want to make sure that it’s easily accessible.”

The VA provides information online for veterans and their families on how they can maintain and support their mental health, including managing stress and anxiety, during the pandemic. Additionally, the Veterans’ Crisis Line is available 24/7. Veterans can access it by visiting the website, calling 1 (800) 273 8255 and pressing 1, or texting 838255.

This message is not just for veterans, however. This is a difficult time for a lot of people, and those who are mentally or emotionally struggling should seek help. 

“It’s important for [veterans] and everyone,” said Brubaker. “When we look at mental health, we’re really looking at making sure that we’re thriving with our mental care and our mental wellbeing. It’s pretty critical.”

Those who want to pursue mental health support should contact their family doctor or visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) website to get a referral to a mental health professional. If an individual is in crisis or urgent mental health action is needed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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