VCU’s emergency hospital entrance in Richmond. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For The Virginia Mercury)
State health officials and the association representing Virginia hospitals are urging against unnecessary emergency room visits as COVID-19 cases spike across the commonwealth in the final days of 2021.
“Hospitals across Virginia have recently experienced an influx of patients seeking emergency department care for asymptomatic or relatively mild COVID-19 infections as well as cases of the flu or other seasonal illness,” a joint statement from the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association says. “In many cases, a hospital emergency department is not the appropriate venue for patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms to seek medical care. Most individuals who contract coronavirus do not need to visit the hospital emergency department and can effectively recover from their illness at home, or by seeking primary care treatment and/or speaking with their primary care provider.”
Virginia is in the midst of a fifth COVID-19 surge with the swift arrival of the omicron variant and cases and hospitalizations are spiking dramatically. There have been 51,564 new infections documented since Christmas Eve and daily hospitalizations from the virus have risen from 922 on Dec. 1 to 2,101 as of Thursday. Those are below the hospitalization numbers of last year’s surge, but the peak of the current wave may not arrive for several weeks.
“Its true impact on public health and the health care delivery system is yet to be fully felt,” the joint statement says.
State health officials and the hospital association said people with severe symptoms — difficulty breathing, intense chest pain, severe weakness and elevated temperatures that last days — should “consider seeking emergency medical care” but that those with mild or moderate symptons — cough, sore throat, runny nose or body aches— should instead “consult an outpatient primary care provider.”
“Unnecessary visits to hospital emergency departments place great strain on hospitals and the frontline clinicians and caregivers who continue to bravely battle the pandemic,” the statement says. “These visits can also cause a delay in care for patients experiencing a true medical crisis and contribute to the depletion of finite resources including medical staff, testing kits, personal protective equipment and therapeutic treatments.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam called the omicron wave “a reason for concern, but not a reason for panic,” citing the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters at preventing serious illness and death.
“Vaccinations are keeping people safe, even as the omicron variant spreads,” Northam said. “Data from around the world show that if people have gotten vaccinated, and then get COVID, then symptoms are likely to be minor. That’s how the vaccines are designed to work, and it’s more good news.”
Northam said “nearly everyone going to the hospital with COVID is unvaccinated” and encouraged Virginians to get vaccinated or boosted and wear masks around others, particularly the unvaccinated.
“People working in hospitals are exhausted—nurses, doctors, and everyone. They have worked tirelessly for months to care for people who have gotten sick,” Northam said. “Please go to the hospital only if you believe you really need to. It’s not fair to put even more pressure on hospital workers to care for people whose hospitalization is avoidable.”
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