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Should I go to the hospital for COVID? A Tampa ER doctor explains.

With hospitals crowded and ambulances delayed, a coronavirus infection does not always require an emergency room visit.
Ambulances wait in the ambulance bay at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa on August 18, 2021.
Ambulances wait in the ambulance bay at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa on August 18, 2021. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 24
Updated Aug. 24

Florida’s hospitals are treating more COVID-19 patients than ever before. Emergency room waits have ballooned, and ambulances are delayed. Every unnecessary 911 call and emergency room visit adds stress to the system.

Hospitals are inundated with seriously ill COVID-19 patients who need to be there, said Dr. Jason Wilson, a professor at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and associate medical director of the emergency department at Tampa General Hospital, but they’re also seeing a significant number of patients coming in who don’t need to be there.

Not sure if you have COVID-19?

For patients who need testing, but are not seriously sick, Wilson said the hospital is a bad option. Hospitals are not free testing sites, so you’ll have to wait, pay for the visit and use insurance.

A better choice, Wilson said, would be self-scheduling a free test at a retail clinic, such as CVS, Walgreens, Walmart or Publix, or visiting a county testing site. Florida test sites are listed at floridahealthcovid19.gov/testing-sites. There are also home test kits available to order online.

Have you tested positive for COVID-19?

“If you are not feeling short of breath, or experiencing a worsening shortness of breath,” Wilson said, “a lot of the time it’s okay to stay home.” It’s especially true if you don’t have other significant health problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

“The biggest risk factor right now is not being vaccinated, but if you do get COVID and you’re unvaccinated and you don’t have other issues, you may be able to just stay home and isolate for 10 days, per the CDC guidelines,” he said.

What if I have a fever, cough, aches or sore throat?

Those symptoms alone do not mean you need a hospital visit.

“We expect people to have a fever and a cough. That’s not surprising with a virus,” Wilson said. He recommended Tylenol and ibuprofen for fevers. There isn’t much data on the effectiveness of over-the-counter cough medicine for COVID-19, he said, but it can’t hurt.

Unless you need oxygen, an IV or are sick enough for the intensive care unit, he stressed, “there’s no other special medicine you’re going to get at the hospital that you can’t get outside of it.”

What are the non-emergency room options?

People with a positive COVID-19 test can receive free monoclonal antibody treatment at Tampa General Hospital’s outpatient clinic or at more than a dozen other free sites around Florida listed at floridahealthcovid19.gov. The treatment can shorten the duration of symptoms and reduce the chance of hospitalization.

All of Tampa Bay’s major health care systems, including BayCare, AdventHealth, Tampa General and Bayfront Health are offering telemedicine appointments by phone or computer. Or you can call your primary doctor.

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Related: How COVID changed ambulance service in Tampa Bay

When should I go to the hospital?

Wilson said there are generally two situations when people should visit an emergency room for COVID-19. The first involves oxygen, which is the most common treatment hospitals provide COVID patients. If it becomes harder to breathe while doing normal things like walking to the kitchen, you should go.

“If you’re short of breath, become cold, clammy and sweaty at the same time, or feel like you might pass out,” Wilson said, you should go.

If you have a pulse oximeter to monitor your blood-oxygen level at home, and the number dips below 90 for longer than five minutes, you should go.

The other situation involves dehydration. If you’re experiencing diarrhea and vomiting to the point where you can’t keep fluids down, and you’re feeling clammy or weak, you might need intravenous fluids. You should go.

When should I call 911, in general?

Calling 911 should be reserved for life- and limb-threatening emergencies. If you’re not having an emergency, traveling by ambulance will not get you in front of a doctor any faster than arriving at the hospital in a private vehicle.

Examples of emergencies include stroke and heart attack symptoms, difficulty breathing, physical trauma such as a bleeding wound or badly broken bone, blood infections or fainting.

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