As COVID-19 cases in area counties continue to skyrocket, East Texas emergency rooms are seeing an influx of patients in need of treatment and COVID-19 testing.
Patients have been going to emergency facilities to get tested for COVID-19 as a surge of contagious omicron cases has local pharmacies backed up with test appointments. Some don’t have availability for at least a week out, resulting in a lack of readily available COVID-19 testing options. At-home rapid tests also are in short supply or out of stock in stores.
The demand has forced local ERs to now limit testing capabilities and test only symptomatic patients so they are able to dedicate their resources to those facing life-threatening emergencies.
UT Health’s emergency room in Tyler had seen about 20 patients walk in with COVID-19-like symptoms within only a 10-hour period, officials said this week.
At Tyler Complete Care, about 50 to 55 patients are visiting each day, which is up 20 percent more than the normal winter rate. Brad Robertson, medical director at Tyler Complete Care, said most of the patients have come in with COVID-19 symptoms.
Hospitality Health ER in Longview also said its facility has seen a “rapid influx” of patients coming in since the day after Christmas.
“We’re there to rule out and treat life-threatening emergencies, and if patients feel like they have an emergency, we’re going to see them and we’re going to treat them, but as far as… (COVID-19) testing ... that’s… not our role. That’s not what we should be doing,” said Dr. Chris Hable, ER physician with UT Health. He added it would be great to have an adequate number of home testing available at area stores. From his experience, people come into the ER and just want to know, “Do I have this virus or do I not?”
Hospitality Health in Longview clarified in a statement that it is not a COVID-19 testing site. Although the facility is testing patients, resources are being used on those who are symptomatic and in need of ER treatment. Health officials are still caring for other medical emergencies amid this surge, the facility said in a statement.
Robertson, at Tyler Complete Care, said the facility also makes it clear it is not a testing center, but it does evaluate people with acute symptoms and determine whether it’s COVID-19, the flu or something else.
Patients at UT Health East Texas are tested and billed as an ER visit. However, Hable said Tuesday that the hospital notified staff to begin limit testing and will no longer test those who are asymptomatic.
When it comes to other emergencies, the Trauma-1 Level Center continues to receive patients from outlying facilities within the region, Hable said. Patients who come into the ER simply to get information, or confirm if they do or do not have COVID-19, are bogging down the system.
“It takes resources. It takes techs to collect the samples, it takes nurses to evaluate, get vital signs. It creates a slowing down of the system, and it makes it hard to be efficient with getting everybody, and really with true emergencies, taken care of in a timely manner,” Hable said.
Since tests are becoming more scarce and limits are now being implemented, Hable said, in general, the ER may not be the best place for patients with a mild illness.
“You may present to the emergency room with a cold-like symptom, and it may be COVID-19. What is your therapy? Supportive care. There’s this idea that when you show up, I’m going to give you several medicines and you’re going to get better. Unfortunately, science doesn’t show that yet,” Hable said.
He added the ER is not turning people away when they’re scared, frightened and worried.
“We’ve continued to come to work despite this pandemic, and we’re taking care of the sick, the really sick from the disease virus and those who are just mildly ill, and by doing so, we’re putting our livelihood at risk, but that’s what we’re called to do,” Hable said.
When the pandemic first began in 2020, Hable said patients weren’t coming to ERs due to fear they could get ill.
“I think that some of that fear has waned and now, people are just like, ‘I just want to know,’” he said.
Now in the third year of the pandemic, Hable said patients are feeling sick, but fewer are being hospitalized. Most patients, he said, are discharged because symptoms are not severe enough to require hospitalization.
At Tyler Complete Care, Robertson said patients have primarily upper respiratory symptoms, including congestion, cough, sore throat, fever and body aches.
Robertson said physicians have recently had to prescribe the COVID-19 antiviral pill, but the biggest issue is finding pharmacies that have it in stock.
Hable said patients presented more sickness in the last surge of the pandemic, primarily due to the delta variant. Those delta patients often required oxygen supplementation to support them. As of Tuesday, Hable said only a few patients have presented with pneumonia and are oxygen-dependent.
He added the majority of cases seen are in those who are unvaccinated, which are often more severe. He said younger and healthy people are among the latest demographics of positive cases. In addition, UT Health East Texas’ ER has seen an 8-week-old baby with COVID-19 in the past few weeks.
“It doesn’t spare, unfortunately. This variant, what we know right now, is more infectious than with previous variants at this point,” Hable said.
Robertson added that while omicron is more contagious and more people are getting the disease, it doesn’t seem to be quite as taxing on ICU beds. Staff at his facility, he said, are working overtime and are being offered extra hours if people are able to help through the busy times.
“I think, for the most part… COVID is a self-limiting illness,” Robertson said. “By treating the symptoms with Tylenol, ibuprofen for fever, cough and cold medicines as needed over the counter, most people do just fine with that. If the patient has other medical problems or risk factors … or if someone is feeling especially ill, meaning short of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, etc., those are probably indications that they need to be seen and evaluated, not only for COVID, but for what else might be going on.”
Will Knous, spokesman for Christus Trinity Mother Frances in Tyler and Christus Good Shepherd in Longview, said both facilities are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, though they have not seen a surge in severe cases.
“While it is too soon to draw conclusions on the long-term risks and effects of omicron, this variant appears to be highly transmissible but less likely to cause lower respiratory tract symptoms and severe disease,” Knous said.
Longview Regional Medical Center said in a statement the facility has also seen an increase in COVID-19 patients due to the most recent variant surge.
“We continually monitor our census and bed availability because it can change at any time as patients are admitted or discharged,” the hospital said.