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About 20% Of Americans Couldn't Get Needed Medical Care Due To Pandemic, Poll Shows

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When the coronavirus surged in hot spots across the country, hospitals got ready. Most canceled elective surgeries, and many doctors told sick patients to try to recuperate at home unless symptoms got really severe. Now a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that about 1 in every 5 Americans in major cities nationwide say they were unable to get needed medical care for a serious problem. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: When 28-year-old Katie Kinsey (ph) moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles in early March, she needed to find a new doctor. Then she got sick with symptoms frighteningly similar to COVID-19.

KATIE KINSEY: I had a sore throat. I had a debilitating cough. When I say debilitating, I mean I couldn't talk without coughing. I couldn't lay down at night without coughing.

NEIGHMOND: Kinsey's a federal consultant. She was coughing through phone meetings. She got very fatigued and knew she needed to see a doctor soon.

KINSEY: I took my insurance card, and I called every single number on it - started with primary carers. And all of them were booked.

NEIGHMOND: Eventually, she went to urgent care, got an X-ray and a diagnosis of severe bronchitis but not COVID. She says she might've avoided months of illness had she been able to see a doctor sooner. In our poll, a majority of households in New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles say they had negative health consequences when they had to delay medical care for serious problems. In Kentucky, ER doctor Ryan Stanton (ph) saw this a lot.

RYAN STANTON: So we had people come in with heart attacks after having chest pain for three or four days or stroke patients who'd had loss of function for several days, if not a week or so. And I'd ask them why they hadn't come in, and they would say, almost universally, they were afraid of COVID.

NEIGHMOND: Despite hospital officials telling patients to come to the hospital with true emergencies - in Los Angeles, Dr. Anish Mahajan with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center says there have been worrisome reports from the LA County coroner's office.

ANISH MAHAJAN: The number of people who've died at home in the last few months is much higher than the average number of people who die at home prior to the pandemic. Something is going on where patients are not coming in for care. And those folks who died at home may have died from COVID, but they may also have died from other conditions that they did not come in to get cared for.

NEIGHMOND: Like many hospitals nationwide, Harbor-UCLA canceled elective surgeries to make room for coronavirus patients. In our survey, about one-third of households in Chicago and Los Angeles with anyone unable to have surgery or elective procedures and more than half of households in Houston and New York say it resulted in negative health consequences. In New York, surgical oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Drebin with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says at the height of the pandemic, he saw patients with advanced disease because they weren't getting routine cancer screening. And he says that could have tragic consequences.

JEFFREY DREBIN: The estimate is that simply the one-year reduction in mammography and colonoscopy will create 10,000 additional deaths over the next few years.

NEIGHMOND: Now, delays in treatment aren't always an issue of life and death. They can make a big difference in the quality of life. Twelve-year-old Nicholas Nablit (ph) lives in Northridge, Calif. He has cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair most of his life - mother Natalie Nablit (ph).

NATALIE NABLIT: And that is because the spasticity in his legs is a result of the CP. And that means his hamstrings, his hips, his calves, even his feet and his toes get really tight.

NEIGHMOND: Nicholas has been helped by Botox injections, which loosen his muscles enough so he can wear shoes. Here's Nicholas.

NICHOLAS NABLIT: I do have these really cool shoes that has a zipper around it. And they really help me because, well, one, they're really easy to get on. And, two, they look so cool shoes.

NEIGHMOND: And best of all, they stabilize him enough so he can walk with a walker.

NICHOLAS: I love those shoes, and I think they sort of love me, too.

NEIGHMOND: Nicholas was due for Botox injections in early March, but that was cancelled, and he went months without treatment. His feet curled so much he was unable to wear shoes or walk with a walker. Today he's back on treatment, wearing shoes and walking with a walker.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

CHANG: And we should note that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.