Local hospitals, along with those across Virginia, are asking people with COVID-19 to stay out of emergency departments unless they have significant difficulty breathing, intense chest pain, severe weakness or an elevated temperature that persists for days.
Those with mild to moderate symptoms, including a cough, sore throat, runny nose or body aches—or people who want to be tested for the virus—should not go to emergency rooms, according to a joint statement Thursday from the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association and the Virginia Department of Health.
“Unnecessary visits to hospital emergency departments place great strain on hospitals and the frontline clinicians and caregivers who continue to bravely battle the pandemic,” according to the statement. “These visits can also cause a delay in care for patients experiencing a true medical crisis.”
Kim Lett of Stafford County knows that all too well. She suspects her daughter tore a muscle in her upper back two weeks ago, but she wasn’t able to schedule a test to confirm the injury until mid-January—almost a month later.
“These are crazy times,” Lett said.
She saw another example Thursday morning as she drove by Mary Washington Healthcare’s Urgent Care off U.S. 17 in Stafford.
“It was so foggy and gray, with a line of people wrapped around the building waiting for their COVID tests,” she said in an email. “The silhouettes of people in the dreary weather was indicative of life lately.”
Long waits for COVID tests as well as overburdened health care systems seem to be signs of the times as the world enters its third year of a global pandemic.
Virginia is in the midst of its fifth coronavirus surge and the peak of the latest spike probably won’t hit health care systems for another few weeks.
Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations in Virginia climbed 128 percent in December. There were 922 people hospitalized with virus symptoms on Dec. 1 compared to 2,101 inpatients on Dec. 30, according to the VHHA.
Caregivers “are feeling the strain of yet another surge and are looking to the community for support,” said Steve Arner, who chairs the VHHA’s board of directors.
Melissa Scheiman, a nurse at Mary Washington Hospital, put it this way in a Facebook post: “So tired. Please get your vaccine and booster.”
Both hospital systems in the Fredericksburg area have been asking people not to visit their ERs to secure a virus test. A Facebook post from Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center bluntly noted: “Our emergency room is not a public COVID testing location. COVID-19 testing is only being offered for pre-admission, prior to surgery or for symptomatic patients.”
Record hospitalizations this week at Mary Washington Hospital and Stafford Hospital “are taxing our staff and providers,” said Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical officer of Mary Washington Healthcare. “We are seeing increasing positive cases among our staff and providers, causing staffing challenges on our already taxed team.”
As of Thursday, there were 120 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 symptoms in the area’s three hospitals, a new high. The previous high for hospitalized patients was in January 2021, before vaccines were widely available, when about 114 patients were treated.
In addition, the positivity rate for the Rappahannock Area Health District reached its highest level ever on Thursday: almost 27 percent. The rate measures the number of positive tests among all those taken. Anything above 5 percent is considered high transmissibility.
Mary Washington Healthcare has asked those with mild COVID-19 symptoms to call their doctors for advice about testing and treatment. Officials also shared the Health Link hotline number, staffed by nurses from 7 a.m. to midnight. Those wondering what course of action they should take can call 540/741-1000.
Newman suggested local residents get tested at an urgent care, medical provider or free clinics offered by the Rappahannock Area Health District, if slots are available.
“Even those locations have been overrun with patients seeking tests,” he said.
In addition to patients seeking COVID-19 tests, emergency rooms across Virginia are dealing with patients with relatively mild COVID-19 infections, the flu or other seasonal illnesses, according to the state hospital association. It noted that most people who get COVID-19 or other seasonal viruses do not need hospitalization and can recover at home or with help from their primary care provider.
“After a holiday, it is not uncommon to see our emergency department visits rise,” said Dr. Michael Stevens, interim hospital epidemiologist at VCU Health in Richmond. “What is uncommon is to see so many people come here just to get a COVID-19 test, leading to longer wait times for those who need urgent care.”
He said there are “better options that are faster and cheaper for testing, including primary care practices and testing sites.”
The Rappahannock Area Health District has nine free drive-thru testing clinics planned in January. The list is available online at vdh.virginia.gov/rappahannock/covid19testing or by contacting the health district’s call center at 540/899-4797 during weekday hours.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425