Mild COVID symptoms? Don’t go to the emergency room, hospital officials say

Health sites feeling strain as more people infected with omicron variant go looking for help

LAKE FOREST – Like emergency rooms across northern Illinois, Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital is feeling the strain of COVID-19.

As the number of new cases continues to increase in Lake County and beyond, officials are reaching out with guidance on where to go if not feeling well.

Specifically, don’t go to the emergency room with mild or no symptoms after a positive test for COVID-19 or simply to be tested for COVID-19, said Dr. Michael Bauer, medical director at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

“That is what’s inundating us at Lake Forest,” he said.

He stressed that those with severe symptoms, such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, poor color, extreme fatigue or lethargy or high fever for several days, should go to the emergency room. But don’t go if it’s not truly an emergency, Bauer said, “because your nose is stuffy or you’re feeling tired.”

“For routine milder illnesses that can be handled through telehealth visits or immediate care or visits to a primary care physician, that’s where you want to be going,” he said.

Although Lake County is the most vaccinated county in Illinois, the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing at a faster rate, largely due to the more contagious omicron variant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, the number of new cases jumped more than 100% last week to 1,502.72 cases per 100,000 residents.

As of Tuesday, Lake Forest Hospital had more than 65 COVID-19 patients, with the vast majority of those unvaccinated, hospital officials said. The hospital is more than 25% over capacity, meaning hospital employees are caring for more patients than they have capacity for, they said, although the percentage is constantly changing and evolving.

Staffing also is an issue, Bauer said, with many employees out with COVID-19.

Still, hospital officials stressed, they continue to provide the highest level of care to patients who need it.

Bauer urged anyone who has yet to be vaccinated to do so. Those who have received the vaccine are experiencing more mild cases, health officials say.

“Our single best weapon is still vaccinations,” Bauer said. “They are doing just what they were designed to do, which is keeping people from getting severe illness, hospitalization and dying.”

Those vaccinated getting breakthrough cases have symptoms similar to respiratory viruses, such as sore throats, congestion and fatigue, hospital officials said.

On Dec. 16, Lake Forest Hospital stopped all elective surgeries because of the capacity demands and strains on staff, Bauer said. Those type of procedures still are being done at Northwestern Medicine Grayslake Outpatient Center, he said.

“We transferred a lot of those less urgent cases up there to try to meet the demands of what’s needed,” he said.

Portions of the hospital’s surgical area have been turned into space for in-patient beds to help meet the capacity demands due to COVID-19, he said.

When the pandemic first began about two years ago, two of the Lake Forest Hospital’s ambulance bays were used as spaces where staff could do a quick triage of patients and perform COVID-19 testing when needed for patients coming to the ER with minor symptoms, Bauer said.

“Now we don’t have the capacity to do that,” he said. “Those ambulance bays have been converted into 12-bed observation units to help meet capacity and demand. We are looking at potential other sites where we could [offer COVID-19 testing] just because of the overwhelming sheer numbers of people coming to the emergency room with mild symptoms.”

Northwestern Medicine’s nearby McHenry County hospitals are experiencing similar difficulties, operating at 120% to 130% capacity. Of those in the hospital, about half are there with COVID-19.

“Hospitals are exceeding capacities in our region, both on the inpatient side and the emergency departments, so if you feel you don’t have an emergency and just want a diagnosis, proceed to one of the testing facilities [or] talk to your doctor for recommendations on where you can be tested,” said Daniel Campagna, director of emergency medicine at Northwestern Medicine’s McHenry County hospitals. “Don’t just go to the emergency department.”

Many people who have symptoms of COVID-19 should assume they have the virus and should isolate at home, Campagna said. However, if symptoms worsen and breathing becomes difficult, people should go to the hospital.

“If you’re feeling short of breath and feeling you can’t do your activities of daily living without having to stop because you’re short of breath, then that’s the time you should come to the hospital,” Campagna said.

People with COVID-19 also should monitor their oxygen levels at home, Campagna said. This can be done with a portable pulse machine, which can be found at pharmacies or online. If oxygen levels drop below 92%, then someone with COVID-19 should seek treatment.

Campagna said the hospitals are seeing more mild cases of the virus, which is helping them discharge patients faster.

Earlier this week, officials with Advocate Aurora said they are seeing the highest number of COVID-19 patients in their hospital system, which includes 26 hospitals across the Chicago area and Wisconsin. The number has doubled in the past month, Advocate Aurora chief nursing officer Mary Beth Kingston said.

The rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations at Advocate caused the hospital system to pause elective procedures and visitors.