When to Seek Emergency Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

The COVID-19 pandemic caused periods of unprecedented strain on healthcare systems in the United States. Many non-essential surgeries and medical procedures were postponed and some medical offices closed. While the pressure on the healthcare system has lifted, COVID-19 is still spreading in the community, and the lasting effects of the pandemic have made some people reconsider whether they should seek in-person care for health problems.

Knowing the level of care you need—and whether you should go to an emergency room, urgent care facility, doctor's office, or telemedicine—can ensure that you get appropriate treatment.

Medical Emergencies

If you have a medical emergency, 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 serious.

Hospitals with emergency departments sometimes provide COVID-19 medical screening before allowing patients into the facility.

In some emergency rooms, coronavirus tests are only performed on people with overt symptoms of COVID-19, and individuals who test positive will be isolated to prevent exposure to healthcare workers and others.

What Is Urgent Care?

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 services are qualified to treat:

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

Urgent care is not intended as a less-costly alternative to emergency rooms. Patients who go to urgent care when they should have gone to an emergency room may require transfer to an emergency department, potentially delaying treatment that could have been started if they initially went to an emergency room.

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

  • Preliminary telephone assessments for symptoms and risk factors of COVID-19
  • Online assessment tools for COVID-19
  • Providing a dedicated waiting area for patients with respiratory symptoms
  • Maintaining at least six feet between waiting patients
  • Providing face masks to anyone with respiratory symptoms
  • Curbside triage (the evaluation of the level of urgency) by a dedicated staff member with protective gear

These recommendations were eased as the severity of COVID-19 infections declined, but people who are at high risk of developing severe infections due to immunosuppression (such as due to an immune deficiency or immunosuppressive medications) may still be advised to take caution in public—especially in healthcare facilities where others might have contagious infections.

Telehealth for Non-Emergencies

If a medical condition is not considered an emergency, another option is to see a telemedicine provider.

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

Telemedicine care increased during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and has remained an option that's available for many people.

Pregnancy and Delivery

To better safeguard mothers and babies, many hospitals have changed their protocols regarding prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postnatal follow-up. Many limit the number of visitors allowed during delivery, and some have begun providing certain prenatal services online or over the phone.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may change certain procedures at the doctor's office, maternity wards, and emergency rooms, it doesn't mean you have to change your birth plan. Talk to your medical team before making any adjustments.

Call With COVID-19 Symptoms

If you suspect you have COVID-19, call your maternity team about what to do. In general, the same guidelines that pertain to the general population also pertain to pregnant women.

Your team may want to make adjustments to your prenatal care plan, and they may advise you of special protocols (such as face masks, COVID-19 testing, and isolation in triage and maternity units) in case you need emergency or urgent care.

Know Who's Allowed

You may be limited on the number of people who can be with you in medical facilities. For instance, you may have to choose between your doula and a spouse or partner.

The sooner you know about visitor policies, the sooner you can adjust your birth plan. It also means you can have the right person with you if you're rushed to the hospital for a non-scheduled delivery.

Labor and Self-Isolation

If you're in labor and have (or suspect you have) COVID-19, call the hospital beforehand so that the staff can be prepared to protect your baby and others from infection. Put on your face mask before arriving at the hospital or before the ambulance arrives.

At-Home Delivery

Some mothers may consider 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 better prepared to care for pregnant women.

Emergency Care for COVID-19

Most healthy adults and children who get COVID-19 will develop cold or flu-like symptoms. 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. Do not drive to your doctor's office or any healthcare 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 own a thermometer, use it and tell them your temperature. However, if you don't own one, do not run to the drugstore for one. 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.

If your symptoms are severe, you need to get emergency care.

Seeking 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. That allows the emergency department to prepare for your arrival with the appropriate precautions.

Being Prepared

An important aspect of taking care of your health is taking the time to formulate your own game plan in case an emergency arises. 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.

8 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. National Institutes of Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. When to use the emergency room - adult.

  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS issues call to action for hospital emergency departments to screen patients for coronavirus.

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

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

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

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

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA continues to facilitate development of treatments.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): What to do if you are sick.

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.