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  • Hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 have reached record highs, with over 145,000 people in hospital beds this week.
  • Some people have shown up to the ER looking for a COVID-19 test since testing has been in short supply.
  • We talked with experts about when to go to the ER for COVID-19 treatment.

The current surge of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing another wave of illness throughout the world.

Healthcare systems are starting to see record numbers of people showing up to the emergency department to get tested, evaluated, and treated for COVID-19 alongside non-COVID-related illnesses.

If you’ve looked for a COVID-19 test on the shelves at your local store, you may have found they are not available or in limited supply.

With the slightest sniffle, cough, or nasal congestion, people are seeking resources to find out whether they have COVID-19, the flu, or just the common cold. And some are showing up to the emergency room (ER) in hopes of getting tested.

But coming to the ER for a test or for mild symptoms is not the best idea.

Hospitals are under severe strain from rising numbers of patients and staffing shortages.

Hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 have reached record highs, with over 145,000 people in hospital beds this week.

But when is the right time to seek medical care as Omicron surges through the United States?

With the contagious nature of this current variant, many people are contracting infections.

According to a not yet peer-reviewed Danish study, Omicron is 2.7 to 3.7 times more infectious than the Delta variant.

While there may be a delay in getting official results, using at-home testing kits and home monitoring, opting for work from home accommodations while distancing, and using over-the-counter medications can help save you a trip to the emergency department.

If one person in your household or someone you have spent time with has tested positive for COVID-19 and you also have mild symptoms, there’s a good chance you also have COVID-19.

You can stay at home and isolate with the assumption you likely have COVID-19, even if you haven’t been able to take a test to verify you have an infection.

And with mild symptoms, you don’t need to come to the ER just for a test.

“Emergency departments across the country are hectic these days,” said Dr. Bobby Lewis, vice chair for clinical operations for the department of emergency medicine at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

“We are seeing all of the same people like we normally would since people are not staying away like they did with the first surge, and we’re seeing a lot of younger people with mild symptoms and many who just want a COVID test,” Lewis continued.

Dr. Wesley Self, associate professor of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, also pointed out that early evidence points to Omicron typically causing less severe disease than other variants of the coronavirus.

“Based on information available to date, it does look like the Omicron variant causes less severe disease on average than earlier variants, such as Delta,” said Self.

“At the time of a COVID-19 diagnosis, some people are provided with a device that can monitor the oxygen saturation in blood; if this device shows an oxygen saturation <92%, medical attention should be sought,” he added.

With nearly 63 percent of the total U.S. population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the symptoms being reported are generally more mild than in previous surges.

But relatively mild symptoms are still often very unpleasant.

Viruses usually last between 7 and 10 days. During that time, you can experience several mild symptoms that over-the-counter medications can treat effectively, such as fever reducers, antacids, or cough syrups.

If you have body aches, fatigue, and some nausea but are still able to eat, and are just generally feeling uncomfortable, you may not need emergency medical care.

“Many people with mild symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, body aches, cough, and congestion, can be managed without going to the hospital,” Self told Healthline.

If you are experiencing severe or life threatening symptoms, or symptoms get worse, you should seek medical care even if hospitals are busy in your area.

“Hospitals are working to reduce exposures to COVID-19, but you should still show up for symptoms you find concerning — especially shortness of breath, chest pain, and stroke symptoms, as they can be life threatening with or without COVID,” said Lewis.

Emergency departments will see all patients according to the triage system. Those with the most severe symptoms are seen sooner than those with milder or lower risk symptoms.

If you go to an emergency department and see patients who came in after you get evaluated before you, there is a good chance they are experiencing a more severe or critical health complication.

This current wave of Omicron cases showed up even as the Delta wave never fully subsided.

If you are experiencing any concerning findings regarding your health, you should seek medical care.

While Omicron may be milder than previous coronavirus variants, you should still practice vigilance, upgrade your mask, limit indoor gatherings, and do home tests when you can. All these actions can make a difference, not only for you but your local healthcare system as well.

Dr. Rajiv Bahl, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at his website.