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Pandemic Provides Reminder of Importance of Recognizing Signs of Stroke

When COVID-19 kept families apart, it meant fewer opportunities for loved ones to notice the signs of stroke. And so, more people fell victim to one of the leading causes of death and disability.

The pandemic contributed in several ways to an increase in fatal strokes in the United States last year, said Dr. Jeffrey Fletcher, who specializes in neurocritical care, neurology and vascular neurology for Metro Health – University of Michigan Health.

Despite the complications of COVID-19, the most important aspect of stroke treatment has never changed, he said: Every second counts to limit the risk of brain damage and death.

“It is essential to recognize the signs of stroke and call 911 to get to the hospital as soon as possible,” he said, “because time is still brain.”

May is Stroke Awareness Month, an appropriate time to emphasize the importance of recognizing the signs, which can be memorized by the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T.:

  • B-Balance (Is the person having trouble with balance?)
  • E-Eyes (Does the person have blurred or double vision?)
  • F-Face (Does the face look uneven?)
  • A-Arm (Is one arm or leg suddenly weak?)
  • S-Speech (Does speech sound strange?)
  • T-Time (It’s time to call 911)

With early data showing a significant increase in stroke deaths in 2020, stroke remains a leading cause of death in the United States, bumped down to No. 4 only because of COVID-19. But Fletcher noted that, even among survivors, stroke takes a huge toll as the leading cause of disability.

The devastating effects of stroke are another argument to be vaccinated for COVID-19, he said. There is moderate evidence that contracting COVID-19 increases the risk of stroke – and strong evidence it can contribute to more severe stroke outcomes.

“In terms of stroke prevention, there’s a lot you can do by limiting risk factors and leading a healthy life,” Fletcher said. “That would include things that mitigate the chance of getting COVID, such as following public health measures, including immunization.”

Acknowledging recent concerns about very rare blood clots among people who received vaccines, Fletcher said, “the risk of stroke with COVID is 1,000 times greater.”

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Fletcher remains optimistic about the future of stroke care. Technological advances mean doctors are able to treat more strokes than ever. But for that to be possible, patients must arrive as soon as possible at a comprehensive stroke center like the one at Metro Health – University of Michigan Health.

“It gets back to recognizing what B.E. F.A.S.T. means,” he said. “Calling 911 can be the difference between death, severe disability and recovery.”