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Some hospitals are saying packed emergency rooms are hindering treatment for those who need it.

Healthcare leaders are asking for residents to reserve hospital emergency departments for emergency needs in the weeks ahead, as most are overcrowded amid a COVID-19 surge.

The Missouri Hospital Association and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services encourage patients experiencing severe illness or a life-threatening condition to continue to use emergency resources. However, they urge patients seeking routine care — like COVID-19 testing or conditions suitable to urgent care or primary care — to seek services in the appropriate environment, which will free emergency department staff to focus on critical patient care. Those who have questions about the type of medical care needed should contact their healthcare provider for further direction.

“Chest pain, stroke symptoms, physical trauma or severe illness absolutely require emergency care,” said Jon D. Doolittle, president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association. “Hospital EDs are designed to treat this type of care. Unfortunately, the patient surge — from demand for COVID-19 testing and care, as well as other normal seasonal increases in hospital utilization — is causing hospital ED waiting rooms to fill up. This creates a bottleneck because every patient must be screened and treated under federal law, regardless of the seriousness of their condition. In an emergency, a patient should always seek ED care.”

Winter months are high volume for hospitals every year, with seasonal influenza, accidents and other routine health emergencies driving the need for care. The COVID-19 surge — with approximately 3,800 inpatient beds filled on Monday in the state — has led to an overwhelming demand. The emergency department often is the “front door” for hospitals. When nonemergency care is added to emergency care, patient triage becomes difficult and wait times increase for all patients.

“There are a variety of COVID-19 testing locations outside of the state’s hospitals,” said Don Kauerauf, director of DHSS. “We encourage Missourians to use nonhospital options for this testing, including state and federal home testing kits that can be ordered online, and tests that are available at other sites to reduce hospital ED crowding. Missourians should consider ordering at-home test kits through the federal online site to have on hand in case they are needed.”

MHA and DHSS have jointly released materials to help educate the public about where to get a test and what types of conditions are appropriate for seeking emergency care. These resources can help guide good decisions for finding testing and care, and reduce the burden on our overloaded health care system.

Missouri’s Testing Resources are available here: https://health.mo.gov/living/healthcondiseases/communicable/novel-coronavirus/community-test.php

The federal at-home test portal is https://www.covidtests.gov/

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