‘That has gotta be the most expensive way you can get tested:’ At-capacity hospitals urge people not to visit the ER for COVID tests

MADISON, Wis.– As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, a growing number of people are heading to the emergency room for COVID tests. But for those worried they might have the Omicron variant, doctors say the emergency room is the last place to go, not the first.

On Monday, the Wisconsin Hospital Association joined Dane County doctors in urging people not to go to the ER for a COVID test.

READ: Wisconsin Hospital Association statement urging people not to go to emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests

“Our emergency rooms are extremely busy trying to take care of people who belong there,” SSM Health Dr. David Ottenbaker said.

“They are for people who are having a medical emergency,” he added. “Are they having a stroke? Are they having a heart attack? Most COVID symptoms are not an emergency.”

Ottenbaker cites testing availability, or lack thereof, as a major reason more people are turning up at emergency rooms for COVID testing.

There are several reasons this is problematic. First and most notably, Madison-area hospitals are at capacity. There are almost zero beds available, and those are for people who will die without treatment.

RELATED: Dane County COVID-19 hospitalizations hit all-time high

The emergency room is also the most expensive option.

“Coming to an emergency department and seeing a physician is not free,” UW Health Dr. Jeff Pothof explained. “So getting your test through the ER has gotta be the most expensive way you can get COVID tested right now.”

Testing is available for free at a number of SSM and UW Health facilities, including drive-thru clinics.

Click here to find a testing site near you.

In addition, those who do have COVID and step foot in the emergency room could come into contact with, and potentially infect, other high-risk individuals who are there for medical emergencies.

“If you come to our waiting room and you sit there for a few hours and infect someone who is really vulnerable, you may be the proximate cause to their severe illness or even to their death,” Pothof explained. “You are not safe to those people.”