How to Know If You Need to Go to the ER With Coronavirus

The new coronavirus is pretty much all any of us are hearing about right now, and it’s no wonder why. Cities and states across the country have shut down bars and restaurants, canceled events, and asked—or required—residents to stay home. Schools have closed their doors all over the nation. In major cities like Seattle (where I live), San Francisco, and New York, rush hour traffic has taken a nosedive due to people working from home or, unfortunately, losing their jobs because it’s not safe for them to be at work right now and impossible to do their work remotely.

All of this is being done in an effort to flatten the curve, or to slow both the speed of infection and the number of people who become infected with the new coronavirus disease (also known as COVID-19) so that hospitals have enough equipment and space for critically ill people. Medical workers need to focus their energy on the sickest patients, and they’re already starting to feel the crunch.

The Seattle Times reported that the University of Washington Medical Center was understaffed and exceptionally full and that medical supplies have run low. Jessica P.,* a registered nurse with an emergency room specialty south of Seattle, tells SELF that nurses in her hospital have been asked to re-use surgical masks all day (paired with face shields), even though they would typically throw masks away after each patient—and that their hospital is out of N95 respirators.

Jessica also says that it is taking some time for people on the front lines of patient care to learn that someone they’re treating got a positive test result for the new coronavirus. This has translated into waiting days before knowing definitively whether or not they’ve interacted with a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19. “That’s what we’ve really been struggling with … not enough protection for the nurses,” Jessica tells SELF. “And not feeling safe to do our jobs because we don’t have what we need to do our [jobs].”

Clearly, keeping our hospitals below capacity and our doctors, nurses, and other care providers healthy is critical. That will take everyone’s cooperation, including, as surprising as it sounds, many people who either know they have the new coronavirus or think that they might. If you’re in that situation, it’s essential to know the difference between when you can manage your symptoms at home in self-quarantine—thus freeing up medical care for someone with a more severe case—and when you need to seek emergency attention yourself.

If your symptoms are mild, please stay home.

Let’s say you’ve got mild symptoms that are consistent with the new coronavirus, the most common being a cough, fever, and some shortness of breath. As counterintuitive—and hard—as this sounds, don’t immediately go to the emergency room.

“You don’t need to go to the hospital just because you think you have the virus,” Louise Catherine Ivers, M.D., M.P.H., infectious disease and public health doctor, director of the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF.

We can understand the urge to seek IRL care immediately in this really scary situation, but there are a few reasons why it’s better to stay home if you seem to have a mild case. For one, testing is still limited in many places, and it’s unclear how quickly tests will become widely available. When health facilities do have tests, they typically have to prioritize testing people with more severe symptoms because there just aren’t enough tests to go around right now, as SELF previously reported. Also, there aren’t currently any antiviral treatments designed for the new coronavirus (like there are for the flu). That means there’s no special new coronavirus drug regimen you can only access with a confirmed diagnosis. Instead, the current medical guidance for suspected and confirmed mild COVID-19 cases is to manage your symptoms at home. Finally, staying at home with a mild case can help our hospitals and intensive care units stay within their capacity as much as possible.

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