Putting off surgeries or routine treatments for serious illnesses has become common during the pandemic, a new NPR/Harvard poll finds.



Last month, Chelsea Titus, a 40-year-old in Boise, Idaho, needed surgery to relieve severe pain from her endometriosis, but there were so many unvaccinated COVID patients at the hospitals that doctors told her she'd have to wait. Nearly 1 in 5 American households has had to delay care for a serious illness due to the influx of COVID patients nationwide. That's according to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio has more.

JAMES DAWSON, BYLINE: Chelsea Titus works for a tech company from her home in Boise and has previously had surgery for endometriosis. When it flared up again in September, the pain was severe.

CHELSEA TITUS: Sometimes it feels like I am in active labor.

DAWSON: Endometriosis affects millions of women in the United States. It's a condition where tissue that typically grows inside the uterus also grows outside of it. The initial medication Titus received didn't help, and she reached out to her on-call doctor.

TITUS: He said if the hospitals weren't in the situation they were in, I would have you in for surgery today.

DAWSON: The situation is that Idaho's hospitals are so full of mostly unvaccinated COVID patients that many can no longer operate normally. Here's Dr. Jim Souza, chief physician executive at St. Luke's, Idaho's biggest hospital, at a press conference last month.


JIM SOUZA: We've now stopped surgical procedures that can be reasonably expected to be associated with a significant risk of permanent disability or pathology.

DAWSON: Idaho has among the country's lowest COVID vaccination rates. Last month, the state okay'd hospitals rationing care if they needed to.

DAN ZUCKERMAN: As cancer clinicians, we're really frustrated.

DAWSON: Dr. Dan Zuckerman is the medical director for St. Luke's Cancer Institute. They've delayed surgery for some breast cancers that can likely be kept at an early and treatable stage with hormones. But...

ZUCKERMAN: There's just no guarantees with that, and there will still be some cancers that biologically may break through.

DAWSON: Standard cancer screenings have also been pushed back, which can lead to more intense chemotherapy and a higher chance of death if the disease progresses. Lots of Americans face delays like the ones in Idaho, says Robert Blendon, a pollster at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health.

ROBERT BLENDON: The numbers were much greater than we expected, and the delta variant changed what was going on.

DAWSON: He's talking about numbers from an NPR survey, which found about 1 in 5 American households couldn't get treatment for a serious illness in the past few months, and most of them say they had negative health outcomes because of it.

BLENDON: This is the United States. You don't expect people with serious illnesses to say they cannot be seen for care.

DAWSON: For Chelsea Titus, the full Idaho hospitals meant she had to look out of state for the surgery she needed. Her brother chartered a private plane to take her to California.

TITUS: I guess I could have flown commercially, but it would have been really hard and embarrassing because I was, like, screaming in pain.

DAWSON: Hotel rooms, a rental car and her flight home add up to thousands of dollars out of pocket, all for a surgery she could have had at a hospital just a few minutes' drive from her home in normal times. It's something she recognizes she's privileged enough to afford. Titus had her last ovary removed nearly two weeks after she was first in pain.

TITUS: It's amazing how much better I feel.

DAWSON: But the situation has left her questioning just how much her friends and neighbors who have refused to wear masks or get the vaccine really care about the community and whether she has any place here anymore.

TITUS: My husband and I used to say we're never leaving Idaho, and we have been looking at real estate in other states because this just isn't OK.

DAWSON: For NPR News, I'm James Dawson in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTY THREE'S "SEE ABOVE, SKY BELOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.