COLUMBUS, Ohio — Patients with heart conditions who contract the coronavirus are among the most at-risk of serious illness. The pandemic has made it harder for many cardiovascular patients to take care of their heart health.
On National Heart Day, Dr. Kevin Hackett, chairman of Mount Carmel Health’s cardiovascular medicine department, explains how COVID-19 is affecting cardiovascular patients and shares tips for maintaining good heart health during the pandemic.
Hackett says patients who have compromised respiratory status from chronic cardiovascular conditions are some of the most vulnerable to the virus. They can become critically ill very quickly when they catch COVID-19 and face the highest mortality rates.
Doctors in the field of cardiovascular health are observing exacerbations of arrhythmias, or improper beatings of the heart, and exacerbations of congestive heart failure in COVID-19 patients.
In some cases, the virus can precipitate new illnesses in the heart, Hackett said. His team had a COVID-19 positive patient in September who suffered a heart attack at age 48. As a smoker with a family history of heart illness, the man was already at heightened risk of such a complication.
Patients with cardiovascular diseases are advised to take the utmost precautions in avoiding exposure to the virus. Hackett says this includes patients with blockages of their coronary arteries, congestive heart failure, rapid heart rates, and some with poorly controlled high blood pressure.
Unfortunately, as a result of their isolation during the pandemic, maintaining behaviors conducive to positive heart health have become more difficult for this population, Hackett said.
For all of these conditions, doctors advise patients to maintain a healthy diet, get exercise, and manage weight and regularly visit for check-ups and appointments.
“Many of the patients were very afraid to leave their homes,” Hackett said. “These are people who really need to be socially isolating themselves and avoiding a lot of casual contacts because if they were to get sick, they would not do well needless to say.”
When you are relying on grocery delivery, it can be a bit harder to regularly eat fresh fruits, produce, and lean meats, which doctors recommend. Meanwhile, exercise classes that are popular for cardiovascular patients had to be put on pause, and diets veered off track.
Good habits like consistently taking medicine and avoiding cigarettes may have been disrupted in the turmoil of the pandemic. Doctors, while conducting appointments via telehealth, had a harder time actively managing patients’ blood pressure or their diabetes, and making sure they kept their cholesterol under control, Hackett said.
The “COVID-20,” a reference to our collective weight gain in the last six months, is a joke for some, but Hackett said it is actually pretty serious for cardiovascular patients, who doctors do not want to see gaining weight.
Poor diet and lack of exercise has been shown to precipitate exacerbations of patients’ heart conditions.
COVID-19 is creating an uptick of heart disease due to some of these factors and leading to more instances of heart failure.
Doctors are addressing each of the pandemic’s challenges for cardiovascular patients as best they can. Patients have been given exercise plans that they can perform at home or in their neighborhoods.
Hackett’s department is now seeing 80 percent or more of its patients in-person, which he said has made a positive difference compared to the shutdown.
“Particularly in the sicker people that we were not looking at, we were starting to see these people appear in the emergency rooms just from decompensations of their chronic cardiovascular disease,” he said. “It became clear to us that for a lot of these people, it’s important that we take a look at them at least every few months.”
For patients who are worried about leaving their homes, doctors can conduct a mix of telehealth and in-person appointments to reduce visits. But Hackett says there has been a very low occurrence of COVID-19 cases in Ohio linked to health care.
In a normal year, Mount Carmel celebrates World Heart Day with heart-shaped cookies and various awareness initiatives, but not during the pandemic.
However, even without the cookies, Hackett hopes to get the message out: Heart health is as important as ever.