Coming to a hospital’s emergency room is not the panacea for COVID. Cases are climbing, the days are getting darker, and every minute, it seems that the news concerning our fight against COVID-19 gets grimmer. Yes, there has been significant progress in vaccine development with a successful rollout in December 2020 but currently, hospitalizations and deaths are rising in practically every state with no signs of slowing down. As two emergency medicine physicians working in Maryland, we are seeing the manifestation of these statistics in our ERs. Every shift, it seems we are seeing more and more critically ill COVID patients. This increase is straining, both for healthcare workers and the clinical capabilities of the hospitals. As we brace ourselves for the surge expected a few weeks after Thanksgiving, we have a simple favor to ask all of you: Please don’t go to the ER just to get a COVID test.
You may be thinking “People aren’t actually doing that are they?” Believe it or not, they are. Every shift, we see patients coming in simply to get a COVID test. Usually, it is due to someone close to them testing positive. Sometimes, it is their job making them get a test so they can return to work. They are often either completely asymptomatic or having very mild, non-life-threatening symptoms.
This MUST stop. Going to the ER for this test unnecessarily exposes everyone. Not only are you exposing the ER staff, who already have plenty of high-risk exposures by virtue of their work, you are also exposing yourself and other patients. Our ERs are full of patients who have weakened immune systems and other underlying health conditions for whom contracting COVID could potentially be fatal. Whether you have symptoms or not, you could still have COVID. Worse, you could be spreading it to others in our waiting rooms and treatment areas. Simply put, going to the ER just to get a COVID test is irresponsible.
Furthermore, nonemergent COVID testing in our emergency rooms unnecessarily burdens our ability to cater to genuine life/death emergencies. Can you imagine taking up a hospital bed for a COVID test while someone in the waiting room is actively having a heart attack or stroke-what if is this was your loved one? Many people think that getting a COVID test is a quick procedure and that there is little harm in going to the ER to get it done. However, it is not that simple. By law, we are required to perform a medical screening exam on any patient who comes through our doors. Even if all you want is a test, you are still a patient that your ER must devote time, staff and resources to. As cases surge, your health system may be in short supply of all three.
We are empathetic of the anxiety of potentially having this novel virus and wanting to one’s status and we do not want to detract from that sense of angst. But we are asking for people with mild to no symptoms to reconsider coming to the ED solely for testing. Now, if you have other medical concerns then it is entirely appropriate to seek care at an ER. We do not want to discourage anyone from seeking medical evaluation during this time. Being evaluated for
symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain is a valid reason to go to the ER. However, just going to the ER for a COVID test is not an appropriate use of healthcare resources.
Regardless of where you live, there mostly likely is a COVID testing site near you. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services has curated a list of free testing sites organized by state. If you are solely concerned about your COVID status, please go to one of these sites for a COVID test, and not the ER. These screening locations are equipped to rapidly and safely perform COVID tests. Not only will going to these sites ease the burden on our healthcare system during this critical time, but it will also protect you and others from potentially transmitting illness in the emergency room. Allowing us, as emergency medicine physicians to treat critically patients is extremely helpful and we encourage anyone reading this to consider these factors the next time you are concerned about your COVID status.