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Emergency rooms are overwhelmed as more people use them for rapid testing

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests, like this one from Abbott, can be difficult to find and cost-prohibitive for some families.
Scott Olson
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At-home rapid COVID-19 tests, like this one from Abbott, can be difficult to find and cost-prohibitive for some families.

As COVID-19 infection rates soar, hospitals around western New England are overwhelmed. Some administrators say the problem is made worse when people use the emergency room for COVID testing.

Hospitals are not legally allowed to turn people away from the ER, so Baystate Medical Center's chief physician, Andrew Artenstein, said waiting rooms are bursting — and not only with COVID cases and non-COVID emergencies.

"They are also places where people have just decided that it's convenient for them to show up to want to test, and sometimes bringing their families with them," he said. "And we don't have enough staff to manage the influx of traffic."

One factor is that home rapid tests are hard to come by, and it can be hard to find an appointment at a retail pharmacy or other testing site.

But Artenstein said that's a national problem hospitals are not in a position to solve.

Moreoever, Artenstein said, people coming to the emergency room simply to get tested are at risk of getting exposed to COVID, especially the highly-contagious omicron variant.

He said Baystate is getting about 25% more COVID patients than at the beginning of the pandemic, and now more staff are getting sick, too.

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Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.

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