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Fewer seek ER help at Barnes-Jewish during pandemic

CENTRAL WEST END – It may come as a surprise to many, but the number of patients at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Emergency Room has actually gone down during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

People who suffer even from such serious conditions as heart attacks or strokes have stayed away from the emergency room. Because of this, they sometimes are in worse shape when they finally come in. Sometimes, the delays have been fatal.

“The emergency department has trended down and decreased and stayed at lower levels,” said Dr. Robert Poirier, who is the clinical chief of the Barnes-Jewish Emergency Department and a Washington University emergency medicine physician. 

“They’re afraid that they’re going to catch COVID,” Poirier said. “That is definitely not the case either.”

Before the pandemic, about 240 people a day came to the emergency room. Now the number has decreased to about 170 to 180 patients a day. In April 2019, there were about 7,200 visits to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The estimated number of visits to the Barnes-Jewish emergency room in April was down to 5,000 to 5,500.

“We’ve seen patients delaying coming in or not coming in if they’ve had a heart attack,” Poirier said. Some have died, and others have had permanent damage.

Every day, about 60 out of about 180 daily visitors are complaining of COVID-related symptoms. In fact, Barnes-Jewish makes sure that those who might suffer from COVID-19 are kept separate. There are different areas for those with COVID-19 symptoms and for those with other conditions. 

Staff members are told to protect themselves as if everyone has COVID-19, with the highly protective N95 masks and goggles. All patients have to wear masks.  

Dr. Robert Poirier, clinical chief of the Barnes-Jewish Emergency Department
Although things have changed sharply, emergency room workers are able to handle the greater demands of their jobs, Poirier said.

“In the very beginning, I think everybody was being more stressed,” he said.

Still, his own hours have gone up. He now spends 12 to 16 hours a week personally seeing patients and 60 to 70 hours a week total. 

One factor that has helped is that all elective surgery has been canceled, Poirier said.

Another factor that has helped is the support of the general public. Almost every day, people bring in something for lunch. On one recent day, for example, an ample supply of food from Jimmy Johns was brought in for employees to eat for lunch. 

“That is a tremendous motivator, and raises the spirits,” Poirier said. “The community support has been fantastic.”

The food comes from various restaurants, including those on the Hill. John Favazza of Favazza’s on the Hill said customers had paid to send the restaurant’s meals to frontline medical, fire and police staff. On breaks from ministering to those suffering from COVID-19, workers can feast on such meals as Sicilian chicken, chicken Parmigiano, spaghetti and meatballs and Sicilian salmon and pasta. 

As of 5 p.m. Sunday, the city had 1,304 confirmed cases of the coronavirus; 87 other people were being monitored. Seventy people had died of the virus.

Poirier would not offer a detailed opinion on how long the virus might stick around. 

“That’s a tough question,” he said.

But he offered a general estimate: “It’s all going to be a while. The virus is going to stick around for a couple of years.”

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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