When to Seek Emergency Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting unprecedented strain on healthcare systems in the United States. Many non-essential surgeries and medical procedures have been postponed and some medical offices have been closed.That may make you hesitant to seek care for a health problem that you're not sure is an emergency.

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 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 healthcare workers and others.

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:

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:

  • 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

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, diagnose 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 compared to the fees you'd 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 in 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 don't seem to be at higher risk of severe illness. 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 babies, many hospitals have changed their protocols regarding prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postnatal follow-up. Following public health recommendations, many limit the number of visitors allowed during delivery, while others have moved certain prenatal services to online or over-the-phone for low-risk cases.

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.

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. At present, the same guidelines that pertain to the general population also pertain to pregnant women.

Still, 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) should 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

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.

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 whether it has adequate resources to accommodate the elective procedure, including:

  • Staff
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Beds, including intensive-care beds
  • Ventilators

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
• Colonscopies
• Cataracts
Postpone Low-level surgeries in
unhealthy patients
• Endoscopies
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
• All
Do Not
High-level surgery or emergency surgery • Most cancers
• Neurosurgery
• Highly symptomatic disease
• Transplants
• Symptomatic cardiac disease
• Trauma
• Limb-threatening vascular disease

You, as a patient, can work with your doctors or a patient advocate if your surgery falls into an uncertain category. However, the procedure may still be denied if the hospital doesn't have adequate resources to address the pandemic or sees 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 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 or ask someone else to do it 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.

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

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 in case an emergency does arise. 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.

A Word From Verywell

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. If you're struggling, talk to your doctor or seek out online therapy to help you get through it.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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11 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.
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