Emergency Rooms Are Open and Safe for Non-Coronavirus Patients: 'I Don't Want People to Be Scared'

"What we don't want to see is people coming in sicker because of delays in care," says Dr. Vikram Reddy

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With hospitals around the U.S. busy with COVID-19 patients and most of the country told to stay at home, people may be understandably scared of doing anything that could lead to an emergency room visit. They also may be pushing off pains or worrisome symptoms that they would normally get checked out by a doctor. But, doctors emphasize, it is fully safe and necessary to go to an emergency room with health issues that require immediate attention.

“I want people to feel comfortable and feel that it is safe to come to the ER for emergencies,” Dr. Lisa Dabby, an emergency physician at UCLA Health in Los Angeles, tells PEOPLE. “I don’t want people to be scared.”

At Dabby’s hospital, for example, a greeter immediately separates out potential COVID-19 patients from other cases coming into the ER “so that we don’t expose any non-COVID patients who are coming for a different emergency to the virus.” Additionally, anyone who enters the facility is given a mask to wear, and every patient is screened for COVID, even if they didn’t arrive as a potential case.

“We’re taking measures to keep people safe at every point in the process and not spread the virus,” she says.

And thousands of miles away in Georgia, Dr. Vikram Reddy, Chief Medical Officer of Wellstar Kennestone and Windy Hill Hospitals across the state, says his facilities are taking similar precautions.

“We’re making sure our team members and our patients are as safe as they can be,” he tells PEOPLE, by handing out masks and practicing social distancing in the waiting areas.

Dabby and Reddy emphasize that people should not avoid going to the ER if they need care. But so far, they’ve seen a large decrease in emergency room visits since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

“What we have seen as a national trend is about a 40 percent decrease in emergency room visits,” says Reddy. “No one has an exact idea [why ER usage is down], but the concern has been that some people are staying away from emergency rooms, perhaps out of anxiety.”

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Dabby says that in the L.A. area, “the ERs are pretty empty,” and that visits to UCLA Health are down around 20 to 30 percent.

Both physicians are concerned by the trend, because they’ve found that people are delaying going to the ER with health problems and that when they finally do come in, they’re sicker on average.

“Because people are scared to come to the ER, they’re waiting too long,” Dabby says. “So when they present, they’re much sicker than they otherwise would have been had they come earlier.”

Dabby says she’s seen a few patients with internal bleeding who put off going to the hospital, making their case more severe.

“They’ve waited a week, and by the time they present to us, their blood counts are so low that they need multiple units of blood and they’re in much more critical condition than had they come earlier,” she says.

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Medical workers prepare to help coronavirus patient in busy hospital. Win McNamee/Getty

Reddy has seen similar cases at his hospitals.

“A lot of our ER patients are coming in a little bit sicker than they normally are, and so the main thing that we’re trying to get out in messaging is, don’t wait until you are in extremes,” he says.

Dabby and Reddy want people to know that ERs are safe and open.

“We don’t want to see what could be a lot of unforeseen illnesses and deaths from people who are not getting taken care of in a timely fashion,” says Reddy. “I think it’s really important to get the word out — even if this wasn’t a pandemic, if you feel like you have a serious condition, seek out treatment.”

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