Santa Clara County residents swamp emergency rooms for COVID tests
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Santa Clara County residents are flooding emergency rooms throughout the region in search of COVID-19 tests amid the county’s biggest infection surge.

Emergency rooms in hospitals across the South Bay are overwhelmed by the onslaught of seekers, tying up resources for those with imminent needs, county officials and hospital representatives said.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in emergency room visits, and many of the individuals coming in are solely seeking COVID-19 tests and do not have any emergency medical or psychiatric needs,” Santa Clara Valley Medical Center hospital officials told San José Spotlight. “It is critically important that we reserve emergency resources for those with emergency needs.”

According to the most recent county data, a total of 7,861 people went to the emergency rooms in Santa Clara County in December—a jump from 7,399 people in November.

“Our county emergency departments are seeing a very large number of people coming in,” Dr. Sara Cody, county public health officer, said Friday. “While I don’t know the exact proportion that are there solely for testing, I simply know that the emergency departments are very full.”

Under the county’s current health order, hospitals can’t turn away patients seeking a COVID test—as long as they report having symptoms or have been exposed to COVID. That means those with medical emergencies have to wait longer for care.

“The emergency rooms are not the right place to go for testing,” Cody added. “It’s the right place to go for emergency.”

Despite her urging, Cody won’t say if the county would change its health order to allow emergency rooms to turn away patients without emergency needs and reduce some of the burden on thinly-stretched hospital staffs.

“Our job at the county and in public health is to communicate clearly to the public when to use which resources and what to do,” Cody said.

Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said emergency rooms around the county are filling up, but couldn’t speak to its relation to those seeking COVID tests. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Omicron’s rapid transmission

The new COVID-19 omicron variant, which was first discovered in the county Dec. 10, has prompted concerns among residents with its rapid transmission rate. After the holiday season, COVID once again engulfed the area. The number of daily cases skyrocketed, as the seven-day rolling average of new COVID infections in the county jumped from 657 on Dec. 24 to 4,657 as of Friday—an all-time high since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The county is already testing approximately 25,000 people per day and providing self-tests through schools, but it still can’t keep up with demands. The Board of Supervisors this week ordered the county to ramp up its testing distribution efforts, such as partnering with unorthodox distributors like local political advocacy organizations or parent teacher associations.

As rapid at-home tests and testing appointments continue to be a scarce, some residents are lining up to get tested at emergency rooms.

Kaiser Permanente, the primary care for roughly 600,000 Santa Clara County residents, is also experiencing an uptick in patients visiting the emergency rooms for COVID tests.

“We ask that people only use the emergency departments for non-routine medical emergencies,” Kaiser Permanente officials told San José Spotlight. “Our emergency departments can only provide COVID-19 tests for non-routine emergent care purposes.”

Regional Medical Center and Good Samaritan Hospital didn’t respond to multiple inquiries about their emergency departments.

The strain on the emergency hospital systems comes as Santa Clara County is pushing to get private hospitals to do more COVID-19 testing. Hospitals are required to test patients within a day after they call to report symptoms or exposure, County Counsel James Williams said.

“We really do need all of the large health care systems to do their part so the burden isn’t solely on the county itself, which is currently providing a disproportionate percentage of the testing to our community,” Williams said at a news conference Friday.

Residents can also report to the county if their primary care providers fail to give them a test, which could prompt enforcement from the county.

“We have, in the past, taken enforcement (action) with respect to the testing order,” Williams said. “We’re prepared to do so again if needed.”

According to Williams, roughly 300,000 residents—or 15% of the population—get their primary care from the county health systems, but the county is providing 20% of all testing. Kaiser Permanente provides care for 30% of the population, but only accounts for 12% of all testing.

“We are working hard to make more testing appointments available where we can,” Kaiser officials told San José Spotlight.

The hospitals urge residents to seek COVID tests through the county’s system or make an appointment with their primary care providers.

“We know it may be difficult right now to get a COVID-19 test,”Santa Clara Valley Medical Center officials said. “But we strongly urge our community not to use the emergency room if they do not have an emergency condition.”

Santa Clara County residents can make COVID-19 testing appointments through this link. Starting Wednesday, residents can order tests online from the federal government.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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