When to Seek Emergency Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Know when to choose urgent care or telemedicine

When to Seek Emergency Care During COVID-19

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting unprecedented strain on health care systems in the United States and abroad. In an effort to reduce the burden and prevent shortages of medical supplies and resources—not to mention reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in hospitals, emergency rooms, and other health care facilities—many non-essential surgeries, medical procedures, and dental procedures have been postponed.

But, what happens if an urgent or emergency situation unrelated to COVID-19 arises, or you are desperate to be treated for a condition that is not life-threatening but you feel simply cannot wait?

Knowing the level of care you need—whether it be an emergency room, urgent care facility, doctor's office, or telemedicine—can ensure that you get appropriate treatment while allowing hospitals to make the best use of their available resources.

Medical Emergencies

If you have a medical emergency, whether it is related or unrelated to COVID-19, you should call 911 and go to the emergency room. This includes any injury or illness for which a lack of immediate treatment may cause harm.

This can include, among other things:

Under no circumstance should you avoid emergency rooms or delay seeking a doctor's care if you feel that your symptoms are truly serious.

If you decide that emergency care is needed, be aware that all Medicare-certified hospitals with emergency departments are now required to provide COVID-19 medical screening before allowing patients into the facility.

Other clinics and hospitals are doing the same. Some have erected tents and temporary structures outside of emergency room entrances to better identify and isolate those with the virus.

Though this is changing now that testing is becoming more widely available, in some emergency rooms, coronavirus tests are only performed on people with overt symptoms of COVID-19. Individuals who test positive will be isolated to prevent exposure to health care workers and others.

Choosing Emergency or Urgent Care

Sometimes, you'll need to make a judgment call to decide if an injury or illness requires emergency or urgent care. It often helps to understand what urgent care is, as well as what it can and cannot do.

According to the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine, urgent care services are intended for illnesses or injuries that would not result in further disability or death without immediate treatment.

Urgent care is not intended as a less-costly alternative to emergency rooms. If used as such, patients may require transfer to an emergency department, wasting not only valuable time but money.

Urgent care services are qualified to treat:

  • Minor injuries
  • Wounds
  • Fractures
  • Concussion
  • Minor infections (including upper respiratory infections)
  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

Most are equipped with X-ray and lab facilities; others have advanced diagnostic technologies. Physicians typically provide the bulk of medical services, aided by nurses and physician assistants.

The CDC has advised urgent care providers and other outpatient facilities to limit face-to-face interactions with patients in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Performing preliminary telephone assessments to determine if a patient has symptoms or risk factors of COVID-19
  • Providing online assessment tools for COVID-19
  • Providing patients experiencing respiratory symptoms with their own dedicated waiting area
  • Maintaining no less than six feet between waiting patients
  • Providing face masks to anyone with respiratory symptoms
  • Performing curbside triage (the evaluation of the level of urgency) by a dedicated staff member with protective gear

Telehealth for Non-Emergencies

If a medical condition is not considered an emergency, another option is to use one of the many telemedicine providers that are offered directly to consumers or as a benefit of many health insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid.

These virtual care providers, all of whom are certified and licensed, can provide medical advice, diagnosis of certain conditions, and dispense certain drugs without having to come into direct contact with you.

Telemedicine providers are increasingly being used by local health authorities to identify people with symptoms of COVID-19 and direct them to the appropriate care. They can also serve as helplines for those who are uncertain if emergency care is needed.

Telemedicine is considered a cost-effective option for consumers compared to the fees one would expect to pay at an emergency room or urgent care center. Moreover, they help alleviate the burden placed on hospitals and emergency rooms while preventing unnecessary interactions that facilitate the spread of the virus.

A 2019 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine estimated that the average cost of a telemedicine call in the U.S. is between $41 and $49—around half the cost of an urgent care consultation with no lab or imaging tests.

Pregnancy and Delivery

One medical concern for which optimal care is essential is pregnancy and delivery. Even so, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many hospitals to seek alternative approaches as they handle scheduled and non-scheduled deliveries.

Little is known about the actual risks COVID-19 poses to pregnancy, but pregnant women do not seem to be at higher risk of severe illness with this virus. Other viruses of the same family (such as SARS and MERS), however, may put pregnant women at greater risk of severe respiratory illness.

To better safeguard mothers and their babies, many hospitals have changed their protocols regarding prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postnatal follow-up. In line with public health recommendations, many have limited the number of visitors allowed during delivery, while others have moved certain prenatal care services online or over-the-phone for low-risk patients.

Therefore, it is important to familiarize yourself with these changes in the event of a medical emergency during pregnancy, or even if you are going to the hospital to deliver your baby on schedule.

These considerations include:

  • Calling your maternity team if you think you have COVID-19: At present, the same guidelines that pertain to the general population also pertain to pregnant women. Still, it is important for your team to know about your risks so that adjustments can be made to your prenatal care plan and you can be advised of special protocols (such as face masks, COVID-19 testing, and isolation in triage and maternity units) should you need emergency or urgent care.
  • Knowing who is and who is not allowed to be with you: Because of visitor restrictions, some women may decide to drop their doulas in favor of having their spouses or partners with them. The sooner you know about visitor policies, the sooner you can adjust your birth plan. Doing so also ensures that the allowed parties are present if you are rushed to the hospital for a non-scheduled delivery.
  • Knowing how to act if you are in labor and are self-isolating: If you are in labor and have (or think you may have) COVID-19, call the hospital beforehand so that the staff can prepare and protect your baby and others from infection. If you have a face mask, put it on before arriving at the hospital or before emergency transport services meet you.

Because of changes in policies or the fear of acquiring COVID-19 in maternity wards, some mothers may consider changing their birth plan from a hospital delivery to an at-home delivery. Before doing so, it's important to consider what might happen if something goes wrong and weigh that against the safeguards already in place at hospitals, which are still prepared to care for pregnant women.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may change certain practices in obstetrics practices, maternity wards, and emergency rooms, it does not mean that you have to change your birth plans. Speak with your OB/GYN and work with your medical team before making any adjustments to your birth plan.

Elective Surgeries

There are some situations in which an elective procedure or surgery may be considered necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) currently recommend that the decision to treat or not treat be based on two things: the available resources of the hospital and a case-by-case review of each elective procedure.

Among the considerations, a hospital will need to determine:

  • If there is enough staff to accommodate the elective procedure
  • If there is ample personal protective equipment to sustain the facility through the pandemic
  • If there are ample beds, including intensive-care beds, to accommodate elective patients
  • If enough ventilators are available to accommodate patients undergoing elective procedures

In addition, the hospital administrator, along with the chief of surgery, needs to determine how urgent a procedure is based on the age, health, and symptoms of the patient, as well as what might happen if the procedure is delayed.

In April 2020, the CMS offered guidelines to hospitals to help direct which elective surgeries are recommended during the COVID-19 crisis:

Surgical Urgency Recommendations
Action Classification Examples
Postpone Low-level surgery in
healthy patients
 Carpal tunnel release
Postpone Low-level surgeries in
unhealthy patients
Consider postponing Mid-level surgery in 
healthy patients
 Low-risk cancers
 Spinal surgery
 Orthopedic surgery
 Elective angioplasty
Postpone if possible Mid-level surgery in
unhealthy patients
Do Not
High-level surgery or emergency surgery  Most cancers
• Neurosurgery
• Highly symptomatic disease
 Symptomatic cardiac disease
 Limb-threatening vascular disease

For their part, patients can work with their doctors or seek a patient advocate if a certain surgery falls into an uncertain category. Even so, the procedure may still be denied if the hospital does not have the resources to address the pandemic effectively or is faced with a sudden uptick in emergency COVID-19 cases.

Emergency Care for COVID-19

The public fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to seek emergency care at the first sign of symptoms. This is something you should avoid unless you have emergency symptoms of COVID-19, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most healthy adults and children who get COVID-19 will develop cold or flu-like symptoms. Because there are no treatments approved for COVID-19, rest and home isolation remain the recommended approach for the majority of people.

If you or a loved one suddenly becomes sick with a fever, dry cough, or other flu-like symptoms, call your primary care provider first. Do not drive to your doctor's office or any health care facility without first calling.

When speaking to the doctor or medical staff, let them know the symptoms you have, when they started, if you've recently traveled, or if you've been in contact with anyone known or suspected of having COVID-19.

For help with talking to doctors or staff about your symptoms and the possibility of having COVID-19, use our downloadable Doctor Discussion Guide below.

COVID-19 Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

If you already have a thermometer, let them know your temperature. However, if you don't currently own a thermometer, do not run to the drugstore to buy one or ask someone in your immediate household to buy one for you. This will only promote the spread of infection.

In most cases, you will be advised to stay at home and isolate yourself until symptoms pass and your doctor gives you the all-clear to leave. The same is not true if your symptoms are severe. In such cases, emergency care should not be avoided.

When to Seek Emergency Care for COVID-19

Call 911 if you or a loved one has the following emergency symptoms of COVID-19:

Be sure to tell the 911 operator if you think COVID-19 is the cause and, if possible, put on a face mask before medical help arrives. Doing so allows the emergency department to prepare for your arrival with the appropriate precautions.

A Word From Verywell

During a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and emergency rooms will often need to re-prioritize their services to make the best use of their available resources. You can contribute to the effort by taking the time to formulate your own pandemic game plan if an emergency does arrive.

Start by making a list of emergency, urgent care, or telemedicine providers you can call if needed. Think ahead about your own health and what types of concerns may require these services. This is especially true if you are pregnant, live alone, or have a serious health condition. Your doctor can help you plan if you are unsure of what to do.

By thinking ahead strategically, you can act swiftly and get the appropriate care you need even in the midst of the pandemic.

Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being proactive about your mental health can help to keep both your mind and body stronger. Learn about the best online therapy options available to you.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. When to use the emergency room - adult. In: MedlinePlus. Updated March 4, 2020.

  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS issues call to action for hospital emergency departments to screen patients for coronavirus. Issued March 9, 2020.

  3. American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine. What is urgent care medicine?. 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim guidance for healthcare facilities: Preparing for community transmission of COVID-19 in the United States. Updated February 29, 2020.

  5. Rockwell KL, Gilroy AS. Incorporating telemedicine as part of COVID-19 outbreak response systems. Am J Manag Care. 2020;26(4):In Press.

  6. Nord G, Rising KL, Band RA, Carr BG, Hollander JE. On-demand synchronous audio video telemedicine visits are cost effective. Am J Emerg Med. 2019;37(5):890-4. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2018.08.017

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnancy & breastfeeding

    Information about coronavirus disease 2019. Updated March 17, 2019.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim considerations for infection prevention and control of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in inpatient obstetric healthcare settings. Updated February 18, 2019.

  9. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS adult elective surgery and procedures recommendations: Limit all non-essential planned surgeries and procedures, including dental, until further notice. Updated March 15, 2020.

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA continues to facilitate development of treatments. Issued March 19, 2020.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): What to do if you are sick. Last reviewed March 16, 2020.