In the battle against COVID-19, hospitals across the country are taking extreme measures to prevent the spread of contagion, including building walls, erecting tents, creating isolation wards and overhauling hospital procedures to ensure patients are protected.
That means if you have to go to the emergency room for any reason, your experience will be vastly different than it might have been before the coronavirus arrived, says Ryan A. Stanton, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).
Stanton and other medical experts stress you should not let concerns about the virus keep you from getting care if you are experiencing chest pain or other serious symptoms, since risks involved in delaying treatment are much greater than your risk of catching COVID-19 in the hospital.
"You're probably safer in a hospital right now than you are at grocery store,” says Stanton, an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Health in Lexington, Kentucky. “We are taking every step we can to prevent accidental spread, just as much for our protection as for yours."
While medical centers in some hot spots like New York City and Boston have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, most hospitals across the country have plenty of capacity and, in fact, have fewer patients than normal.
Here are some ways hospitals are protecting patients during the pandemic, and what you can expect if you need to go for any reason.
You will undergo a thorough screening, very likely before you even step inside
To isolate those who may have the coronavirus as quickly as possible, hospitals are screening every patient upon arrival for COVID-19, even those with time-sensitive heart attack and stroke symptoms.
Stanton notes that Baptist Health constructed a new wall just inside the front door to separate a screening room from the rest of the hospital. Only one person is allowed to enter at a time.
At other hospitals, the screening takes place before you even get to the door. Health care workers may be posted outside to handle them, or evaluations may take place while patients are in an ambulance or their cars.
Patients with viral symptoms such as a fever, cough, shortness of breath or loss of a sense of taste or smell are immediately isolated and sent to a special triage area for potential COVID-19 patients.
Many hospitals have erected pop-up coronavirus triage tents in their parking lots, where such patients can be evaluated and tested. In some cases, patients with COVID-19 don't need hospitalization, so medical workers send them home with instructions, and ask them to self-quarantine.
If they do need hospital care, they are led into the hospital through a separate entrance.
"We want to make sure anyone with COVID symptoms doesn't have to go inside the hospital at all unless they get admitted,” says Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health, which has five hospitals in Southern California.