A study recently published in the journal Radiology shows that there has been a higher incidence and severity of physical intimate partner violence (IPV) during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US state of Massachusetts compared to previous years.

The study assessed data from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The study’s findings reveal that even though fewer patients reported IPV overall, the incidence of physical IPV in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic was 1.8 times higher compared to the incidence between 2017 and 2019.

The researchers compared the data from 26 physical IPV victims in 2020 to that from 42 physical IPV victims from 2017 to 2019.

“The total number of deep injuries (injuries to deep internal organs) was 28 during 2020 versus 16 from 2017 to 2019. The number of deep injuries per victim was 1.1 during 2020 compared with 0.4 from 2017 to 2019,” according to a news release on the study published by the Radiological Society of North America.

The study also found that the incidence of high-risk abuse, defined as injuries caused by strangulation, stabbing, burns or the use of weapons like knives, guns and other objects, was two times greater during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, victims of IPV during the pandemic were more likely to be ethnically white. While 65% of victims in 2020 were white, only 26% between 2017 and 2019 were white.

According to Dr. Babina Gosangi, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of radiology at Yale New Haven Health in New Haven, Connecticut, victims during the pandemic also experienced more chest and abdomen injuries compared to previous years.

“For instance, one victim sustained multiple bilateral rib fractures with right pneumothorax and bilateral lung contusions – requiring hospital admission for more than 10 days – after she was repeatedly punched in the chest. Another victim was stabbed in the abdomen and had lacerations to the liver and kidney,” she noted in the news release.

A pneumothorax occurs when air collects in the space between the lung and chest wall. The air pushes on the outside of the lung and can cause it to collapse.

“Our study showed a higher incidence of physical IPV, both in absolute numbers and proportion, with more severe injuries despite fewer patients reporting IPV,” explained Dr. Bharti Khurana, a study author as well as the principal investigator and director of the Trauma Imaging Research and Innovation Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“This indicates that victims are reporting to health care facilities in the late stages of the abuse cycle. Fear of contracting infection and closure of ambulatory sites might be preventing victims of mild physical or emotional abuse from seeking help compared to the pre-pandemic era.”

“As health care providers, we are missing opportunities to identify victims early in the cycle during the pandemic,” Khurana warned. “There is under-reporting by the victims, accentuated due to fear of seeking care due to COVID-19. At the same time, IPV-related injuries may be getting overlooked or misinterpreted, as our frontline physicians are overwhelmed by a vast number of COVID-19 patients in the Emergency Department.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone experiencing domestic violence should create a plan to determine ways to remain safe, practice self-care and try to maintain social connections through phone calls, texts and social media platforms. In addition, victims can call 911 or reach out to the Disaster Distress Helpline or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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