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St. Louis emergency room staff urges alternatives for COVID-19 testing, mild-symptom patients

Some hospitals have halted elective surgeries and stopped testing patients at the ER to accommodate those highly impacted by the virus.

ST. LOUIS — More people are showing up at the emergency room as COVID-19 cases climb but hospital leaders have made it clear that not everyone needs to be there.

On Thursday, Dr. Benjamin Leacock, the ER medication director at SSM St. Joseph Hospital-St. Charles told 5 On Your Side they were seeing 30-60% more patients than they had last fall.

"Not just the emergency departments, but urgent cares and primary care doctors offices are overwhelmed as well but the sheer number of people who are sick right now is very high," Leacock added.

As variants and surges continue to slam communities, the public has struggled to find testing but health officials have said the ER shouldn't be the first stop.

"It gets in the way of us seeing the patients who are truly sick. People who have heart attacks. People who are having a stroke. It just overwhelms us," Leacock continued.

He says people should ask themselves two questions: 'What am I getting tested for?' and 'Am I sick to the point where I have to go to the ER?'

"Feeling short of breath going down the hallway, that would be a more serious symptom. When you're throwing up so much you can't keep water down, that would be more severe. And when you're so fatigued that you can't get around your house," Leacock said.

RELATED: 'The nightmare scenario we feared': Hospitals see record COVID patients amid staffing shortages

Other hospitals share the same sentiment.

"The backup just kind of moves upstream and downstream and clogs us all up,” said Dr. Robert Poirier, clinical director of the Barnes-Jewish emergency department.  

Poirier said that the hospital was seeing 250-300 arrive at the ER daily with only 70 to 80 beds to fill.

As a result, they stopped elective surgeries to make for more space and have halted testing asymptomatic patients.

MORE: BJC halts elective surgeries after COVID patient surge that is 'beyond anything we’ve seen thus far'

"More sites are opening every week. You can order tests online,” Pourier added.

The City of St. Louis has expanded testing in the area to meet the increased demand.

One partnership is with the Missouri Department of Health and other health stakeholders and another with Nomi Health.

Those will provide between 1,000 to 2,000 more tests a day.

READ: List: COVID testing sites in the St. Louis area

Mercy Hospitals' media relations manager Bethany Pope sent us the following statement: 

Hospital emergency departments across the region are overwhelmed and, as a result, patients are experiencing long wait times and delayed care. Much of this volume is related to patients with little to no symptoms seeking COVID-19 testing. We understand testing capacity across the region/country is limited, but we urge patients not to come to the ER to confirm a COVID diagnosis. Emergency departments treat patients based on severity of illness, not first come first served, so patients could be unnecessarily exposing themselves as they wait many hours to be tested.

Patients who have a known COVID exposure should monitor their symptoms, reach out to their primary care physicians for guidance or visit a local COVID--19 testing center. Emergency departments are for those experiencing any kind of true emergency such as COVID patients with severe illness, underlying disease or who have difficulty managing their illness at home.

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