Skipping doctor's visits during COVID-19 may have led to serious health risks, experts warn

Pandemic leads to dire delays in medical care
Pandemic leads to dire delays in medical care... 02:49

Last Updated May 20, 2021 7:07 PM EDT

As new COVID-19 cases decline across the country, more Americans are heading back to the doctor's office. But for some, all those skipped appointments during the pandemic created serious health risks. 

Four in 10 Americans put off routine or emergency visits in the first half of 2020 — sometimes with devastating results. 

A year ago, despite having a heartbeat irregularity called atrial fibrillation, Eric Masella felt healthy. 

"Then COVID happened," Masella said. "Had a kid at home, stress builds, doctors weren't available. So I hadn't seen a doctor for a while." 

He estimates it had been about a year since he had been to the doctor.

Last fall, he developed a persistent cough and fatigue. COVID-19 was ruled out. By January, he could no longer ignore his symptoms. His heart function was so poor, some of his organs started shutting down. 

"Kidney failure, liver failure, cardiac arrest. I died," he said. "They were able to get me back, and once they did, I was on life support for the next three days." 

The 45-year-old, who had a nearly 2-year-old son, had heart failure. "What could have happened if he didn't have a father — and that still scares me, but I'm safe now," Masella said. 

In the U.S., emergency room visits last spring for heart attacks and strokes decreased by about 20%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, cardiac diagnostic testing decreased by two-thirds, according to a study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 

"Because of the pandemic, because of COVID, there's such a hesitancy and such a fear to go into the hospital," said Dr. Anu Lala, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Lala helped Masella recover. 

"The message that I would urge people to take home is, do not ignore your symptoms. Take the time to check in with yourself," Lala said.  

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook