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Doctor asks people to leave ERs for emergencies as COVID-19 cases strain hospitals, ICUs

"We're in a tight place right now. If the hospital system fails, we're all in trouble," said Dr. Karen Smith, a senior staff physician at Baylor Scott & White.

AUSTIN, Texas — As Central Texas goes through another COVID-19 surge, area hospital systems are feeling the burden. 

A senior staff physician at Baylor Scott & White is asking people to leave the emergency rooms open for emergencies, as some Texas ERs and intensive care units have available staffed bed counts in the single digits. 

On Saturday, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported Austin-area ICUs had five beds available.

"We're in a tight place right now. If the hospital system fails, we're all in trouble," said Dr. Karen Smith. 

Smith asked people to consider other options before just going to the ER because someone can walk in. She said to consult with your primary care physician or go to an urgent care if you're not facing an emergency. 

"Normally, we had a lot of patience and graciousness and welcome for people who come to the ER for whatever reason. We want people to feel welcome. We want them to feel cared for. But right now is the time to say, 'Can an urgent care help me? Can my regular doctor help me? Can my regular doctor or their nursing team help me know whether to go to the ER?'" Dr. Smith said. "This is a good time to leave those beds for the real emergencies, because, as busy as they are, if you're not in trouble, they're probably not going to give you a diagnosis for your minor situation. They're going to say to go back to your regular doctor, and then you're going to be out a lot of time and money." 

She also reminded people that virtual visits are still an option for many who aren't feeling well. 

"You would hate to find out that someone's grandmother died because you were [at the ER] for a cold. And we're never going to tell you that, but our approach to the pandemic as a nation from the beginning has been this: protect the hospital system," said Dr. Smith, "not because hospitals are more important than people, they aren't, but they're our safety net. If the hospital fails, we're all in trouble and we are approaching that point right now."

Smith said this does not mean people should never go to the ER. She said some examples of when someone needs to go to the ER are:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Deep cuts
  • Chest pain
  • Change in thinking or confusion
  • Going into labor
  • Car wreck
  • Sudden change in use of arms or legs

Smith added that more than 90% of their COVID-19 hospital admissions are unvaccinated people. 

"Our hospitals right now are being overrun," Dr. Smith said. 

Smith asked people who have not been vaccinated to consider getting the vaccine.

"This is real. Viruses don't respect cultures, political parties. Viruses don't respect national boundaries; they just look for human bodies. If you have a human body, you're at risk," said Smith. "People are dying around us, and I hate to hammer on that point because it's so awful, but it's so true."

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