As COVID cases continue to surge across Florida, hospitals are feeling the strain – and that includes in the local Emergency Department.
Physicians stress that anyone with a life-threatening illness or injury should immediately call 911.
But if you have a minor illness or accident, you may want to think twice about visiting the emergency department right now, said Dr. David Wein, chief of Emergency Medicine at Tampa General Hospital.
“People have always come to the emergency room for minor things, and in normal times, you’re not really taxing the system that much,” Wein said. “But now if you show up with a sprained ankle, you’re going to wait a long time. We are at a stage where we need to triage you.”
As always, call 911 immediately for:
- Chest pain
- Breathing difficulties
- Signs of a stroke, such as difficulty speaking, moving on one side, or drooping features on one side of the body
- Severe injury, bleeding, burns, or loss of consciousness
But if you’re not sure whether a condition is severe enough to need emergency treatment, consider calling your physician, telehealth service or urgent care clinic first. They can help determine whether you need emergency care.
“I never want to say no to seeking emergency care,” Wein said. “But if you’re unsure, one way to access health care quickly is to seek a virtual visit first.”
Many hospitals are filled close to capacity right now. That means that it takes longer to move patients from the Emergency Department into the inpatient units of the hospital. With the Emergency Department more crowded, patients with the most serious conditions will be cared for first.
“It just backs up like a traffic jam,” Wein said.
Similarly, patients who have COVID also should seek emergency care if they have trouble breathing, or if their oxygen saturation on a pulse oximeter drops below 92 percent, Wein said. But if their symptoms are milder, they should first contact their physician, an urgent care clinic or telehealth. They also should ask whether they are a candidate for treatment with monoclonal antibodies, which can lower the risk of developing more severe symptoms.
Patients should also consider the severity of their symptoms before calling an ambulance, he said.
“There’s a perception that if you arrive at a hospital by ambulance, you’ll be seen more quickly,” Wein said. “In our current environment, we are in a situation where we have to care for the sickest people first.”
The current volume of calls and back-ups in the Emergency Department is forcing ambulances to wait longer before unloading patients, potentially lengthening response times for patients with serious emergencies.
Despite the crowded departments, emergency workers continue to ensure that all patients and clinicians are wearing masks, and that patients with COVID symptoms are quickly triaged to separate areas of the emergency departments. Patients with serious emergencies should not hesitate to come to the hospital because they are afraid of COVID, Wein said.
“Everyone is masked and we have mitigation measures in place,” he said. “We are able to care for COVID and non-COVID patients.”