Inside the emergency department at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Michigan, staff members are struggling to care for patients showing up much sicker than they’ve ever seen.
Tiffani Dusang, the ER’s nursing director, practically vibrates with pent-up anxiety, looking at patients lying on a long line of stretchers pushed up against the beige walls of the hospital hallways. “It’s hard to watch,” she said in a warm Texas twang.
But there’s nothing she can do. The ER’s 72 rooms are already filled.
“I always feel very, very bad when I walk down the hallway and see that people are in pain, or needing to sleep, or needing quiet. But they have to be in the hallway with, as you can see, 10 or 15 people walking by every minute,” Dusang said.
The scene is a stark contrast to where this emergency department — and thousands of others — were at the start of the pandemic. Except for initial hot spots like New York City, in spring 2020 many ERs across the country were often eerily empty. Terrified of contracting covid-19, people who were sick with other things did their best to stay away from hospitals. Visits to emergency rooms dropped to half their typical levels, according to the Epic Health Research Network, and didn’t fully rebound until this summer.
But now, they’re too full. Even in parts of the country where covid isn’t overwhelming the health system, patients are showing up to the ER sicker than before the pandemic, their diseases more advanced and in need of more complicated care.
Months of treatment delays have exacerbated chronic conditions and worsened symptoms. Doctors and nurses say the severity of illness ranges widely and includes abdominal pain, respiratory problems, blood clots, heart conditions and suicide attempts, among other conditions.
But they can hardly be accommodated. Emergency departments, ideally, are meant to be brief ports in a storm, with patients staying just long enough to be sent home with instructions to follow up with primary care physicians, or sufficiently stabilized to be transferred “upstairs” to inpatient or intensive care units.
Except now those long-term care floors are full too, with a mix of covid and non-covid patients. People coming to the ER get warehoused for hours, even days, forcing ER staffers to perform long-term care roles they weren’t trained to do.
At Sparrow, space is a valuable commodity in the ER: A separate section of the hospital was turned into an overflow unit. Stretchers stack up in halls. A row of brown reclining chairs lines a wall, intended for patients who aren’t sick enough for a stretcher but are too sick to stay in the main waiting room.
Forget privacy, Alejos Perrientoz learned when he arrived. He came to the ER because his arm had been tingling and painful for over a week. He couldn’t hold a cup of coffee. A nurse gave him a full physical exam in a brown recliner, which made him self-conscious about having his shirt lifted in front of strangers. “I felt a little uncomfortable,” he whispered. “But I have no choice, you know? I’m in the hallway. There’s no rooms.
“We could have done the physical in the parking lot,” he added, managing a laugh.
Even patients who arrive by ambulance are not guaranteed a room: One nurse runs triage, screening those who absolutely need a bed, and those who can be put in the waiting area.
“I hate that we even have to make that determination,” Dusang said. Lately, staff members have been pulling out some patients already in the ER’s rooms when others arrive who are more critically ill. “No one likes to take someone out of the privacy of their room and say, ‘We’re going to put you in a hallway because we need to get care to someone else.’”
ER Patients Have Grown Sicker
“We are hearing from members in every part of the country,” said Dr. Lisa Moreno, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. “The Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the West … they are seeing this exact same phenomenon.”
Although the number of ER visits returned to pre-covid levels this summer, admission rates, from the ER to the hospital’s inpatient floors, are still almost 20% higher. That’s according to the most recent analysis by the Epic Health Research Network, which pulls data from more than 120 million patients across the country.
“It’s an early indicator that what’s happening in the ED is that we’re seeing more acute cases than we were pre-pandemic,” said Caleb Cox, a data scientist at Epic.
Less acute cases, such as people with health issues like rashes or conjunctivitis, still aren’t going to the ER as much as they used to. Instead, they may be opting for an urgent care center or their primary care doctor, Cox explained. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in people coming to the ER with more serious conditions, like strokes and heart attacks.
So, even though the total number of patients coming to ERs is about the same as before the pandemic, “that’s absolutely going to feel like [if I’m an ER doctor or nurse] I’m seeing more patients and I’m seeing more acute patients,” Cox said.
Moreno, the AAEM president, works at an emergency department in New Orleans. She said the level of illness, and the inability to admit patients quickly and move them to beds upstairs, has created a level of chaos she described as “not even humane.”