RICHMOND, Va. -- A group that represents Virginia emergency room doctors in hospitals and clinics is urging Gov. Ralph Northam to reissue a state of emergency declaration that expired in July as COVID cases soar and hospitalizations increase.
The plea came hours after the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association (VHHA) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) issued a joint statement urging Virginians with mild to moderate COVID or other non-serious illnesses to stay away from hospital ERs — especially if they just want a COVID test.
Dr. Todd Parker, the president-elect of the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians (VACEP), said the declaration would allow hospitals "some options that aren't normally allowed," like:
- Allowing the Commonwealth to provide disaster funding and access federal dollars to support the response and increase staffing levels
- Allowing emergency departments and hospitals to enact protocols to more efficiently evaluate or treat patients (such as using telehealth or providing care outside the walls of an ED)
- Helping emergency departments allocate scarce resources more appropriatel
"Emergency departments are considered a safety net for those patients in need of care, regardless of insurance status, and are federally mandated and morally obligated to provide care to all those who seek it," officials with the VACEP said. "However, Virginia’s emergency medicine system is under threat of collapse due to excessive patient volume."
While Parker said the group supports the VDH/VHHA statement, he said they wanted to issue their own since they do not want people who need care to be hesitant to come to the EE.
In fact, Parker said he saw people put off care they needed because they were afraid of COVID or worried about overburdening the system early in the pandemic.
"And the downstream effects of that were terrible with people having serious health conditions that could have been taken care of had they been seen sooner," Parker warned.
The group also called for public health officials to open more testing sites.
Officials with Northam's office referred to the governor's comments Wednesday encouraging people to get vaccinated and only to visit the ER if necessary. A spokesperson also said that hospitalizations are lower than they were during the last spike driven by the delta variant.
The governor's office said they have just received the state of emergency request and are in the process of reviewing it.
Samantha Wilmot-Doxey was one of many Virginians trying to find a COVID-19 test after she was exposed to the virus earlier this week.
"Tuesday, I tried. the urgent care down the street. All of the appointments were taken for that day, for the next day, for the next day after that," Wilmot-Doxey said.
She turned to Facebook, friends and family, hoping they could tell her where to take a test.
"I was informed that Chesterfield libraries had just restocked the free tests that were available for pickup," she said.
However, she said those tests didn't even last the morning.
Health experts are saying that one of the reasons it may be hard to find a test these days is because people are seeking out rapid antigen tests instead of going to a traditional lab to get tested.
Unvaxxed are bulk of Virginia COVID hospitalizations; people with mild symptoms told to avoid ERs
People with mild to moderate COVID symptoms and those with other non-serious illnesses are being urged to avoid going to the ER as the state grapples with a fifth coronavirus surge, Virginia health department and hospital systems officials said Thursday.
"For general testing needs, please do not go to the emergency room or burden the hospitals any more than they really are. They are ready to serve those that have severe illnesses. So we definitely need to preserve that," Suzzie Trotter, the COVID-19 testing co-lead with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) said.
Trotter said the agency is working with area health departments to increase the number of testing events.
The urging comes as the highly-contagious omicron variant is causing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to surge. In fact, Virginia reported its second straight day of record-high cases Thursday and officials said hospitalizations in the state have climbed nearly 130% from 922 on Dec. 1 to 2,101 on Dec. 30.
Officials warned that the surge's peak may not come until several weeks after the holiday season.
"Hospitals across Virginia have recently experienced an influx of patients seeking emergency department care for asymptomatic or relatively mild COVID-19 infections as well as cases of the flu or other seasonal illness," Julian Walker with the VHHA said.
Most people with COVID do not need to visit the ER and can recover at home, or by seeing their doctor, according to VHHA officials. Those people may have symptoms like cough, sore throat, runny nose, or body aches.
However, officials stressed that people with severe COVID-19 symptoms like difficulty breathing, intense chest pain, severe weakness, or an elevated temperature that persists for days unabated should seek emergency medical care.
Moreover, officials said people should not go to the ER "simply for the purpose of having a COVID-19 test" since those "place great strain on hospitals and the frontline clinicians and caregivers who continue to bravely battle the pandemic."
"These visits can also cause a delay in care for patients experiencing a true medical crisis and contribute to the depletion of finite resources including medical staff, testing kits, personal protective equipment, and therapeutic treatments," Walker said.
Vaccination is key to avoiding hospitalization, officials say
Health officials stressed that while Virginia's has seen two straight days of record high COVID case counts, hospitalizations remain below the peak of 3,201 on Jan. 13, 2021.
"That is thanks in part to the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines," officials said. "Data continues to show that the majority of patients currently hospitalized in Virginia for COVID-19 care are unvaccinated."
In fact, for the week of Dec. 18, the VDH reported 72 vaccinated people were hospitalized for COVID. That week the VHHA reported Dec. 19 that roughly 1,400 patients were in the hospital with COVID. So the unvaccinated accounted for roughly 95% of Virginia's COVID hospitalizations.
State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver called getting vaccinated "the best defense against serious illness and hospitalization from COVID."
"If you have not gotten vaccinated or boosted and are eligible, please do so now," Oliver pleaded. "Do it for yourself, your family, and your community, including the health care workers we depend on to be there when we truly need emergency care."
As a result, officials with Virginia hospital systems continued to urge the unvaccinated to get the shot and those who have been vaccinated to get boosted.
"The available vaccines offer strong protection against illness from COVID-19," VHHA officials stressed. "And for those who contract a breakthrough case of the virus after being vaccinated, the vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness that leads to hospitalization or death."
Carilion Clinic CEO/Executive Vice President and VHHA Board of Directors Chair Steve Arner said caregivers have worked without a break to serve their communities during the pandemic.
"They are feeling the strain of yet another surge and are looking to the community for support,” Arner said. “It’s crucial for community members to seek the appropriate level of care, ensuring that emergency rooms are reserved for emergencies. Of course, the best support that you can give is to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.”
More than 15,000 Virginians have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the VDH. More than 78,000 people who were hospitalized with COVID have been discharged, according to the VHHA.
COVID-19 in Virginia: 13,500 new cases reported Thursday, Dec. 30
Appointments are encouraged at Community Vaccination Centers to avoid extended wait times, but officials said that walk-ins are welcome.
Virginians age 5+ are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine. Pre-registration is no longer required, so go to Vaccine Finder to search for specific vaccines available near you or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-275-8343).
Have You Been Fully Vaccinated?
People are considered fully vaccinated:
- 2 weeks after their second dose in a 2-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or
- 2 weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine
How to Protect Yourself and Others When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated
COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting you from getting sick. Based on what we know about COVID-19 vaccines, people who have been fully vaccinated can start to do some things that they had stopped doing because of the pandemic.
We’re still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19. After you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you should keep taking precautions—like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces—in public places until we know more.
These recommendations can help you make decisions about daily activities after you are fully vaccinated. They are not intended for healthcare settings.