OCONOMOWOC — For at least one doctor on the front lines, it’s not the new coronavirus he’s worried about. It’s what happens when people are unnecessarily fearful of it.

As an area emergency room physician, he worries some people are avoiding the hospital because of COVID-19 fears.

“The emergency rooms and the hospitals are the safest places they have ever been,” said Dr. Timothy Westlake, who has practiced for the past 19 years as an emergency room physician.

Westlake is the medical director of the ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital emergency department. He also serves on the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board and the state’s Controlled Substances Board.

He said he’s seen a significant decrease in emergency room cases, which he blames on the coronavirus.

“Emergency department volumes, day-to-day volumes, are down about 35%,” Westlake said. “The majority are not COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 related illness is not consuming our time in the emergency department.”

Westlake said they’re still getting emergency cases, but they are much more critical than they normally would have been before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are worried that heart patients and those with other ailments may be dying at home rather than seeking help,” Westlake said. “I think there’s an overall fear right now of going near urgent care centers and emergency rooms because that’s where people with a cough and a fever will go.”

He said patients are waiting too long to come in because they’re afraid of contracting the coronavirus from other patients in the ER.

“The emergency room cases that we are seeing tend to be higher critical, or higher levels of emergency than we would normally expect. Mainly because people are waiting and they’re coming in in a state of emergency that’s a bit more progressed than we’re used to seeing,” Westlake said, “which is more challenging to handle and leads to more adverse outcomes for patients.”

He said he wants people to trust their hospital’s ER procedures.

“It’s very unfortunate because the risk for that patient to come to the hospital at this time is minimal. We do separate our COVID-19 patients from our non-COVID-19 patients,” Westlake said. “You will be screened if you come here with a cough and a fever and placed in isolation.”

He said patients preregister and undergo temperature checks at the door. Everyone must also wear a mask — no matter his or her health status.

Westlake said some hospitals across the nation decided to lay off staff because elective surgeries, a needed service that is a major revenue generator for hospitals, were not being done.

“People are slowly coming back for those services,” Westlake said. “That’s frustrating for us in the medical profession because we’re not taking care of people like we should be, but it is safe to get healthcare again.”

He said with the lower volumes of people coming into hospitals it’s hurting the bottom line and placing the overall health system on life support.

The American Hospital Association, which represents 5,000 hospitals, health care systems and networks, reported May 4 that hospitals are estimated to lose as much as $50 billion a month. In response to financial crisis hitting these U.S. healthcare institutions, it was earlier this month, as part of the coronavirus relief package, the federal government began disbursing $30 billion in aid to hospitals across the country.

In Oconomowoc, Westlake said when historians look back on the affect of COVID-19 on the healthcare system, they will see the damage that was done.

“It’s then we’ll see the cure was worse than the disease, especially when it comes to healthcare,” he said. “The overreaction has caused more harm than good. Society has changed and people know they need to stay 6 feet away from one another, wear masks, wash their hands and stay home from work or school if they are sick. States need to know there is not a one size fits all plan. Individuals can make their own decisions when they are given good information.”

Westlake said he works 12-hour shifts at the Oconomowoc Hospital, and said morale among staff has not dipped because of COVID-19.

“We know what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “We are here to help people. It’s our duty to help those who come through our doors.”

With Oconomowoc and its surrounding areas not as dense in its population as Spain, Italy, Chicago or New York, there was never a time when resources became scarce, Westlake said. He said it all depends on the hospital chain one is employed with. He said the larger chains are able to get additional masks and surgical gowns for their staffs. He admitted the rapid COVID-19 tests are limited in supply, but it’s not hampering patient testing and treatment.

“We were not seeing the high numbers of patients with COVID-19 like others regions in the U.S. or across the globe,” he said. “We may see two who have it and admit them, but then again, we may see two other patients and rule it out.”

He said COVID-19 presents a “complicated issue” for doctors.

“Stopping the spread is just one piece of it,” he said. “The other is getting the patient’s immune system stronger to fight off COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. However, we do know a lot more than we did when this first hit. There has been incredible surveillance and tracking to eliminate some of the risk associated with the coronavirus.”

Westlake said he’s not sure what will happen with COVID-19 when the calendar turns to the fall months.

“It could become a seasonal illness, which makes it hard to plan for,” he said. “We just don’t have all the answers right now.”

Besides planning for the possibility of another yet stronger wave of the coronavirus, the virus has already changed the way medical staff interact with their patients.

“I am not a fan of wearing masks, but when we see a patient with coronavirus, we dress in our personal protective equipment,” Westlake said. “We even have what we call ‘cappers’ which are similar to a motorcycle helmet that is able to have positive air pressure run through it so we are not breathing in any of the virus droplets.”

He said the “capper” makes it difficult to communicate with patients.

“I will usually stand about 8 feet from the patient to meet them so they see my face and then I put the rest of the protective equipment on,” he said. “It’s a scary time. We can’t offer a caring touch to calm someone like we once did. That’s a huge piece that’s missing in medicine today. We are more impersonal now.”

He said the one positive that has come from COVID-19 is seeing people coming together.

“People are thanking us, but this is our job. We trained to get people healthy, but it just reaffirms the strength of human nature. People are more in touch with what’s important in their lives and it’s not the fancy cars or the large homes, but it’s their family, friends and staying in good health,” Westlake said. “We’re all in this battle together.”

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