Two things are undoubtedly true in Washington, D.C.: 1. Many people are scared of the omicron wave, and 2. There are not nearly enough COVID tests to meet the demand. This combination has created a problem that may end up having deadly consequences: Emergency Rooms packed with patients who are there solely to get a COVID test.
According to the Washington Post, D.C. area hospitals are begging the public to stop. "Do not come to the hospital looking to get tested," a spokesman for the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center told the Post. The spokesperson said that the hospital currently has wait times as long as eight hours due to people who "frankly don't need to be there."
Hospitals in Northern Virginia are also feeling the strain, leading Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association to issue a joint statement on Thursday urging "individuals with mild coronavirus cases" to "avoid trips to hospital emergency departments."
According to the statement, "Hospitals across Virginia have recently experienced an influx of patients seeking emergency department care for asymptomatic or relatively mild COVID-19 infections." According to the statement, "a hospital emergency department is not the appropriate venue for patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms to seek medical care. Most individuals who contract COVID-19 do not need to visit the hospital’s emergency department and can effectively recover from their illness at home, or by seeking primary care treatment and/or speaking with their primary care provider[.]"
The statement further indicates that the problem of people seeking hospital care for "mild to moderate" COVID symptoms, or "simply for the purpose of having a COVID-19 test administered" is impacting hospitals' ability to care for truly sick COVID patients. The statement further calls for individuals to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they are not already, in order to prevent more serious symptoms if they are infected.
In addition to overall panic about the spread of the Omicron variant and a nationwide shortage of commercially-available COVID tests, hospitals are also seeing individuals who are presenting to emergency rooms for tests because of another reason: government mandates that require a negative test for people to return to work on January 3rd. With many other testing locations completely out of tests at present, some see the hospital ER as the only option. The problem has especially been exacerbated by a D.C. order issued earlier this week requiring all school students to produce a negative test prior to returning to classes in 2022.
D.C. officials have reached out to the Biden administration begging for testing support during the crisis. "There is an acute need for testing in D.C.," one unnamed official told the Post.
The Biden administration has responded with an offer of help, according to the Post's report, but the help in question may be woefully inadequate. According to the Post's report, a forthcoming federal testing site will have the capacity to test about 500 people per day, which will do little to meet existing demand for tests.