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Wait times growing at Pittsburgh area hospital emergency rooms

An increase in COVID-19 cases and staffing shortages are affecting local ER wait times and taking a toll on frontline workers, not only nationally but also locally.

Parents reported to Channel 11 that wait times at the emergency room of UPMC Children’s Hospital were up to eight hours before their children were seen.

But officials say this issue is hardly unique and is a result of the pandemic.

“I understand your frustration, and we want to be there and serve you,” UPMC Chair of Emergency Medicine Dr. Donald Yealy said.

Across western Pennsylvania, emergency departments are slammed and staffing is short. The demand for care is higher now than it was months ago and even a year ago, and much of that is related to COVID-19 illness or the concern about it, officials said.

Officials at UPMC Children’s Hospital ER said higher wait times can also be contributed to the ER being misused by parents, coming in to get their child tested for COVID-19, sprained ankles, runny nose and other non-life-threatening medical issues.

“The ER is not the place to get a COVID test for yourself or your child,” Yealy said.

UPMC released a statement that reads:

“Our goal is to start and complete the best care as promptly and safely as possible. For many, any wait at an emergency department is short. But, given the high numbers of people seeking emergency care at some sites, esp. at this phase of the COVID 19 pandemic, we must use an initial triage process in each UPMC emergency department to help prioritize patients for care when immediate space isn’t available. That evaluation is done by a trained professional and uses many factors, including potential severity and time waiting to aid.

Anyone with a perceived emergency medical condition should go to the closest emergency department or call 9-1-1. UPMC urges community members with other new or worsened illnesses and injuries to take advantage of outpatient options such as going to UPMC Urgent Care or to schedule virtual appointments through UPMC’s Anywhere Care or UPMC Children’s Anywhere Care (for anyone up to 17 years old.)

We urge everyone eligible for a COVID 19 vaccine to make the choice to get one, and we encourage all to mask indoors or when in a crowd.”

Dr. Thomas Campbell, chair of emergency medicine at Allegheny Health Network, said the situation hasn’t been this dire for some time. Between staffing shortages and your typical ER patients on top of a pandemic, Campbell said patient volume is high, and so are wait times.

“Unfortunately we have to take care of people in corners and hallways, any way we can when we don’t have the space so we can provide the care,” Campbell said.

The last thing any doctor of nurse wants is a sick person in need of help to leave.

“You feel defeated sometimes as a clinician because you don’t want people to wait, you want to get people as rapidly as you can,” he said.

Excela Health reported that much like every other provider in the region, their ERs have seen a significant rise in patient visits over the past several weeks, noting that cumulative numbers across their systems are at the highest point in nearly three years.

“Much like every provider in the region, Excela Emergency Departments are experiencing a significant rise over the past several weeks in patient volumes. In fact, cumulative numbers across our system are the highest we’ve seen in nearly three years. Suffice it to say, these increases have impacted wait times. However, we prioritize and treat those patients with the most serious and life-threatening conditions,” according to a statement released by the hospital.

And walk-in clinics aren’t immune either. Heritage Valley said their walk-ins have more than doubled the usual number of patients.

Officials said if you have heart attack or stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately. And if you need a routine COVID-19 test and have mild symptoms, call your primary care doctor.

You can track wait times HERE for Children’s Hospital and HERE for AHN hospitals.