Fear of going to the emergency room during the nationwide coronavirus outbreak may be leading to unnecessary deaths and illnesses, a North Carolina ER doctor said Wednesday. Dr. Ryan Lamb said people should still be seeking medical help for illnesses other than COVID-19.

“With both distancing and masks and washing our hands, we can protect people,” Lamb told CBSN Wednesday. “It is safe to come in and get seen.”

Lamb said he fears some people are making the mistake “of waiting too long and missing that critical timeline when we can make a very good intervention and help people.”

“We’re seeing a lot more both deaths and comorbidities and illness as a result of people not seeking care,” he said. 

New York Times article published Tuesday showed that in seven states hit hard by the coronavirus, death counts from March 8 to April 11 were much higher than normal levels. 

“That’s certainly a lot more than the coronavirus alone, and so if we’re not getting people in and getting them seen in that critical timeline, then we can’t do interventions and treat people like we can for strokes and heart attacks and appendicitis,”Lamb said.

Lamb cautioned that people should not stop social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands because that could lead to “an escalation of patients.”

But, he said, because many hospitals delayed elective surgeries to focus on COVID-19 patients, many now have the capacity to treat other patients. 

“Now that we’ve slowed things down enough, the hospital systems and the emergency departments, in general, across the country are not overwhelmed, and in fact, seeing mostly 30% to 40% reduction in volumes, so we have plenty of capability of taking care of people,” Lamb said. 

The American Hospital Association has issued guidelines on starting elective surgeries again, he said.

“The patients are going to need to be tested, there’s going to be a need for plenty of PPE, or protective equipment, for both the staff, as well as the patients, and then deciding who needs to go first in terms of acuity and severity of their problem,” Lamb said.

Accessing how and when to start those surgeries again is underway at his hospital system, Lamb said, and he expects them to begin soon.