COVID cases overwhelm emergency rooms at hospitals in SE Wisconsin

The recent wave of COVID-19 cases is leaving hospital emergency departments backed up. Many emergency rooms are unable to see patients right away – sometimes not for hours. 

"In my almost 20 years – I have not seen anything like this before," said Dr. Jason Liu, a physician and professor of emergency medicine with Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin.

"Waits that can be hours, two hours, four hours, six hours – and that’s been on the high side for the last several weeks," said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health Chief Quality Office and Emergency Medicine Physician.

Dr. Jeff Pothof

Unless you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, hospitals are warning emergency room patients to expect a wait. It is the omicron variant that is causing hospital capacity issues and staffing shortages. 

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"We’re actually using the ER rooms as kind of like inpatient beds, and therefore we don’t have the room to put patients who are actually coming through the front door into the ER," Liu said.

Hospitals use a triage process to determine which patients are in need of urgent care. Anyone with a more pressing concern is seen first. But with so many people in the waiting room at once, doctors say it is not always simple.

"It can be hard to track those patients to reevaluate them to make sure their condition that didn’t start out life-threatening remains something that’s not life-threatening. There’s just not as many eyes on folks in the waiting room," Pothof said.

That is why physicians recommend calling a primary doctor if it is a non-life-threatening issue – and urge people not to go to the emergency room for a COVID-19 test. 

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"We’re asking people to be understanding of that and realize that things are taking longer than usual and they might actually have to wait a few hours before they can actually see a provider," Liu said.

Dr. Jason Liu

Health officials recommend checking the average wait times at emergency rooms online. Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin offer wait times on their website

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