Puebloans who are skipping preventative medical care are suffering unintended consequences such as blindness or untreatable cancer as they continue to adhere to isolation precautions out of fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus.
“I have seen some people lose their vision these last three years because they don’t come in,” said Dr. Paul Rastrelli, an ophthalmologist with Rocky Mountain Eye Center. “It is a sizeable portion (of patients) and if anyone goes blind, even if it is one person, it is really heartbreaking.”
Rastrelli said there have been well-documented cases of patients coming in to see their doctors with later-stage cancer, for instance, “and so the same is true in our profession. Often the patients have other comorbidities like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ), so they are very scared.
“They are weighing the risks because if they get COVID, they know they could die,” he said.
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Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson Sarah Joseph said her department has launched informational and social media campaigns to encourage Puebloans to get routine care.
“Since the vaccines have come out, medical providers are more able to provide services in the community. The message is, ‘It’s OK, it’s safe and all of these medical offices have safety precautions and standards they are practicing,’” Joseph said.
Joseph said public health and hospital officials are seeing cases of cancer and heart disease that are “much worse” because patients are not getting routine preventative care.
Rastrelli said some of his patients with well-established diagnoses such as glaucoma, macular degeneration or diabetes “know they have blinding diseases. But they are so concerned about contracting COVID they just stay away.”
“I have had multiple patients that have decent vision in one eye, have lost vision in the other eye and are just coasting and coping,” he said. “They may be undergoing chemotherapy or have immunosuppression and don’t want to put themselves at hazard.”
Glaucoma, dubbed the “silent thief of the eye,” oftentimes goes undetected until it is too late. Often, patients don’t notice the loss of their side vision, Rastrelli said.
“They may have lots of disease and not have symptoms. Once they have symptoms it’s a snowball effect and medicines or surgery are not going to help them get the vision back to where it was,” Rastrelli said.
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As a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Rastrelli keeps abreast of issues in his profession but has not seen concerns about eyecare neglect reported by his peers on a national level.
He encourages Pueblo patients to resume eye exams. Joseph said Puebloans also should schedule other routine exams for dental, whole body and mental health checkups.
Rastrelli said the Rocky Mountain Eye Center patient count is only about 85% of the pre-COVID census. Staff at all 11 of the Southern Colorado area eye centers—four of which are in Pueblo County—continue to take steps to sterilize every room and have limited patient movement so that there is less contact with others in the buildings.
While masks are not required at the eye centers unless patients are unvaccinated, both Rastrelli and Joseph encourage mask use for those who have concerns. Joseph said anyone with COVID symptoms can get tested at the free community test site at the Pueblo Mall, which is open 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Saturday, except on July 4.
Nine locations in Pueblo offer free at-home testing. To find one close to you, visit county.pueblo.org/public-health/covid-19-resources.
Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business news. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.