BOSTON -- People who need medical help are putting off going to the doctor amid the COVID-19 outbreak over fears of contracting the virus, health officials say.

Emergency rooms are swamped with COVID-19 patients, and many doctors offices have cancelled checkups and other routine visits as health care facilities limit public access to avoid further spread of the respiratory illness.

But health officials worry the precautions, coupled with public fear, are keeping people who need help from seeking it.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents the state's physicians, is urging people not to forgo necessary health care treatment.

"Even during this unprecedented public health crisis, patients should not be afraid to seek care from their physician and health care team when needed, especially in urgent situations," said Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, the society's president. "It is more important than ever for our patients to be as healthy as possible, and forgoing appropriate and timely care from their physician could prove dangerous."

The group says safeguards are in place to protect patients, and most doctors are still reachable by phone, or via tele-health and in-person visits.

Massachusetts is in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 infections, with more than 38,077 cases as of Sunday and 1,706 deaths.

Gov. Charlie Baker says the state prepared to juggle COVID-19 patients and normal emergency room visits. He told reporters last week that his administration's efforts to expand hospital capacity by setting up regional field hospitals and canceling non-elective surgeries "make it possible to do both."

The Baker administration has also expanded remote access to physicians by requiring insurers to cover medically necessary tele-health services. The state has also partnered with Boston-based Buoy Health to make the company's online symptom-checking tool available to Massachusetts residents, free of charge.

Physicians groups say tele-health is meant as a guide, and those with serious medical conditions shouldn't put off seeking treatment.

Meanwhile, health care advocates say cancer patients and others with serious ailments are not getting adequate access to treatment.

Fifty percent of cancer patients and survivors reported some impact to their health care due to the pandemic, according to a recent poll by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. At least 13% of cancer patients in treatment have had care delayed, the survey found.

"The health effects of this pandemic stretch well beyond those diagnosed and suffering from COVID-19 and are having an acute and adverse impact on cancer patients, many of whom can’t afford treatment delays," Lisa Lacasse, the society's president, said in a statement.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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