Frustrated Covid Test-Seekers Are Overwhelming Emergency Rooms
(Bloomberg) -- As emergency rooms struggle to keep up with the omicron variant, they’re also contending with a stream of frustrated people looking for Covid tests.
With retailers short of at-home tests and wait times at many urgent care centers and doctor’s offices stretching for hours, those with mild or even non-existent virus symptoms have slammed ERs looking for anywhere that might have a test.
“A lot of people are pretty frustrated at long lines at testing centers. I get that. But they are coming to the ER and adding to the fray,” said Melisa Lai-Becker, an emergency physician and head of the emergency department at CHA Everett Hospital in Massachusetts.
Last Wednesday, Lai-Becker said, the hospital calculated that about 40% of its ER patients were there primarily for a Covid test. The hospital was already inundated with seriously ill Covid patients as the ultra-contagious omicron variant has led to hundreds of thousands of new cases in the U.S. each day. CHA Everett is currently handling about double the normal patient load with less than 80% the usual staff due to workers staying home after contracting the virus or being exposed to it.
“Our positivity rate is sky high,” Lai-Becker said. “And if you didn’t have Covid before you came, you might be picking it up sitting in our waiting room.”
In Massachusetts on Monday, two groups representing state ER doctors and nurses put out a joint statement urging patients to not visit ERs for routine testing, pleading that ERs are at a “breaking point.” On Tuesday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said the state would establish more testing sites away from hospitals to divert people from going to slammed ERs for tests. And in New York City, the fire department turned to Twitter to ask New Yorkers to refrain from calling ambulances for a Covid test.
With case numbers in the U.S. reaching pandemic records in the aftermath of the holiday travel season, already-strapped rapid testing supplies have become even more scarce. Bottlenecks in the test authorization process, along with demand that’s outpacing supply, have made rapid at-home tests difficult to find. As a result, those who have been exposed to the virus or who are showing mild symptoms are skipping the normal testing channels.
The Biden administration has pledged to rapidly increase supply of at-home tests, and test-makers have said they are prepared to make more tests available. But in the meantime, health care providers are urging people with mild or no symptoms to stay home and isolate if tests are not readily available.
Mount Sinai Health System in New York City said it saw an increase in people visiting emergency departments for Covid tests beginning before the holidays as people prepared to gather with friends and family. The system has expanded testing in other outpatient settings in order to meet demand.
In upstate New York, Keith Grams, the chair of emergency medicine at the Rochester Regional hospital system, said that the droves of patients coming to ERs each day are the least of his worries.
“They gum up the system, but they are the easiest to take care of,” he said. “Right now, we are way past capacity for people waiting for a hospital bed.”
Even as the majority of people experience milder symptoms with omicron, the sheer number of positive tests means that critical cases are rising, too. At one Rochester Regional hospital, 83 patients are currently waiting for a bed, Grams said.
“We are using every nook and cranny,” he said. If patients aren’t experiencing an emergency, Grams said they should probably skip a visit to the ER. “Anytime someone doesn’t have severe symptoms, the emergency department is not the best place for them.”
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