Faced with rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and increasingly crowded conditions, Kentucky hospitals are asking the public to stop using emergency rooms for routine tests for the virus.
"We are running into a lot of problems with patients coming into the emergency department simply for testing," Dr. Mark Spanier, medical director of the emergency department of Baptist Health Lexington, said on a press call Tuesday.
"If you show up for routine testing, you'll be delaying care of other patients," he said.
Rather, Spanier and other physicians say people who are not seeking treatment but only want a test should go to one of the multiple community sites for free COVID-19 tests. The sites are listed on the state's kycovid19.ky.gov website.
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Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky's commissioner of public health, said that advice applies statewide.
"Do not go to an emergency room just to get a COVID test," he said. "They're overwhelming the hospitals and making the situation worse."
Along with crowded emergency rooms, hospitals are dealing with an increasing number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as the omicron variant of the virus continues its surge through Kentucky.
Many are admitted after showing up at already-crowded emergency rooms for care, hospital officials said.
"None of our emergency departments were not busy before all this started," said Dr. Roger Humphries, chairman of UK's emergency medicine department.
In Louisville, Norton Healthcare on Tuesday reported 283 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, compared with 227 a week ago.
University of Louisville Health reported 199 COVID-19 patients, up from last week's 132. And Baptist Health reported 192 at its hospitals in Louisville, La Grange and Floyd County, compared to 160 last week.
Pediatric cases also are on the rise. Tuesday, 33 children were patients at the state's two children's hospitals.
Norton Children's in Louisville reported 27 children hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to 18 a week ago. UK's Kentucky Children's Hospital had six kids admitted with COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Lexington hospital officials cited similar trends on a press call.
"We are all busy," Humphries said. "We are all admitting a lot more COVID patients."
As of Monday, Kentucky had 1,873 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 1,000 or fewer in early December before the new, more contagious omicron variant of the virus was detected in the state.
While health officials say omicron doesn't appear to cause as severe illness as the previous delta version of the virus, it is making some people very ill, with some ending up in the hospital and on ventilators. Most of those are unvaccinated.
Humphries said the best protection against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, and if eligible, get a booster shot.
"It is really Russian roulette if you try to live in these times with no vaccine," he said. "I think people who have not been vaccinated need to reconsider."
Meanwhile, emergency rooms are experiencing heavy volume with many patients testing positive for COVID-19.
Humphries said UK saw 341 patients at its two emergency rooms Monday, with about 50% of the 151 testing positive for COVID-19.
Spanier said Baptist Health Lexington has been experiencing heavy emergency room volume, which leads to longer wait times and frustration among some patients — which they take out on already stressed and exhausted health workers.
"Patients sometimes will yell at the nurses, will sometimes be rude," he said. "I would encourage anyone who uses the emergency department to be kind to the providers who are still there because many are leaving and will continue to leave if they are mistreated."
Lengthy wait times also apply to people seeking a COVID-19 test at the emergency room who may find themselves with bills for co-pays or deductibles not covered by insurance, though community test sites are free.
"You don't want an ER bill if you don't need an ER bill," Humphries said.
Hospital officials said that minor illness from COVID-19, such as cough, congestion and body aches, can be treated at home in consultation with a family health provider or urgent care clinic.
But more serious symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or low oxygen levels merit a visit to the emergency room.
"If your symptoms are mild, please get tested elsewhere," said Todd Gilbert, director of emergency services at St. Joseph Hospital. "If you are experiencing severe symptoms, we are more than happy to treat you."
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: People seeking routine COVID tests clog Kentucky emergency rooms