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Tips to Stay Out of the ER as COVID Variant Spikes

“I can say bed availability is an ongoing issue for us, and it’s something we’ve communicated to the community even before the pandemic began and especially since the arrival of COVID.”

(AP/Molly Riley)
(TNS) - Doctors from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine said that people can take steps to avoid busy emergency departments, especially as new COVID variants circulate.

In a press release this week UAB doctors recommended the strategies aimed at helping people avoid infectious diseases that are expected to increase in the near term—by staying out of the hospital.

The new omicron sub-variant, known as XBB.1.5. is making up nearly 20% of new cases in the state according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ).

“I can say bed availability is an ongoing issue for us, and it’s something we’ve communicated to the community even before the pandemic began and especially since the arrival of COVID,” said Dr. Marie-Carmelle Elie, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UAB. “That has not changed.”

“UAB is the only American College of Surgeons verified Level I trauma center in the state, and our emergency departments are seeing record numbers of patients with more than 135,700 patient visits each year. In addition, we provide care across a wide range of disciplines for many of the most complex cases in the state. Because of this, we are at or above capacity almost every day. And while we are the 8th largest hospital in the country and the largest and most specialized in Alabama, as Dr. Elie mentioned, this is not just a UAB issue. Every hospital in the region and many beyond are feeling this pressure.”

To prevent future trips to overcrowded emergency departments, UAB physicians recommend the following:

Take advantage of other resources available

“For the past several months, we have been urging people to take advantage of primary care, telehealth services and urgent care when possible and appropriate,” said Elie. “We continue to encourage this.”

UAB says online video medical services, urgent care through UAB eMedicine, calling 205-934-3411 or sending a message to their provider through the UAB Medicine patient portal are possible options for people with routine, non-life threatening illnesses.

Through any of these services healthcare providers at UAB can make diagnoses and prescribe medication according to UAB representative Anna Jones.

For those who are low-income, low insured, or under-insured, Elie said that UAB’s Cooper Green Mercy Hospital is a “great resource.”

Cooper Green has served low-income members of the Birmingham community for decades and recently broke ground for construction of a new facility.

Get an annual checkup

Some health situations can be caught before they require emergency care if patients attend regular checkups according to UAB.

“Getting a yearly checkup gives your doctor the opportunity to do necessary screenings and to potentially identify problems that put you at risk for things like obesity and hypertension,” said Stephen Russell, M.D., a professor in the Department of Medicine and physician at UAB Medicine Leeds in the release. “When you attend your yearly checkup, your doctor may be able to help you keep preventable illnesses from becoming a health crisis.”

Vitamin deficiencies, cancer, heart disease, and other organ disease were all listed in the release as things that could be caught early with annual checkups.

Getting regular health screenings

In addition to their annual checkup, UAB also suggests that patients have regular health screenings for things such as depression, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Regular health screenings can also detect different forms of cancer and are recommended by the American Cancer Society.

“During the pandemic, some people may have put their routine health care on pause, but it’s always a good time to get your screenings and checkups back on track,” Russell said in the release. “By performing the recommended screenings, your doctor may be able to detect and treat certain diseases early before they become more severe and lead to a hospital visit.”

Stay up to date on vaccines

In addition to the largely discussed COVID and Flu vaccines, the CDC also lists multiple other vaccinations people should receive from birth-18 and onward.

Some of these include vaccines for measles, Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, and meningococcus [a cerebrospinal infection].

UAB warns that vaccines can wear off over different periods of time even if someone has already had them, so it is important to stay up to date on boosters.

“Vaccines are one of the most convenient and safest preventive care measures available,” Sumayah Abed, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and family medicine physician at UAB Medicine Hoover Primary and Specialty Care said in the release. “Routine vaccinations prevent and minimize the effects of illnesses that could lead to unnecessary medical visits and hospitalizations.”

For a full schedule of vaccines recommended by the CDC for adults and children, visit

Prioritize self-care

“According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care simply means taking the time to do things that help people live well and improve their physical and mental health,” said the release. “Self-care can include anything from eating a balanced diet or aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day to taking time for stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises.”

When people neglect self-care their mental health can suffer. This can then lead to physical manifestations of poor mental health.

UAB listed the following symptoms that can occur when someone experiences a mental health crisis:
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling isolated, not wanting to leave the house and be with others
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness or worry
  • Thoughts of suicide, self-harm or harm to others
  • Excessive drinking, substance abuse or smoking

“Caring for your mental health is just as important as caring for your physical health,” Abed said in the release. “Self-care can play a role in maintaining not only one’s physical health but one’s mental health as well and aids in supporting treatment and recovery for people with a mental illness.”

“If you get to a point where managing your situation on your own is not possible, it is important to seek help. Talk to a health care provider who can help you interpret your symptoms and connect you with the resources that you need. If you are thinking about hurting yourself or others, you need to go to the emergency department immediately. You can also call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 for 24/7 assistance.”

Avoid excessive alcohol use

If a person consumes too much alcohol they could be at risk for alcohol poisoning which can be fatal.

UAB listed the following critical signs that might indicate an alcohol overdose:
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing
  • Hypothermia

“Immediate effects of excessive alcohol use can include alcohol poisoning and injuries such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings and burns,” said the release. “Long-term effects include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and liver disease; mental health problems such as depression and anxiety; and weakening of the immune system. Avoiding excessive alcohol use can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks.”

Abed said in order to avoid this it is also important for people to maintain a proper work life balance and nurture relationships, so they aren’t falling into substance abuse as a result of deeper unhappiness.

“Mental health conditions and substance misuse often go hand in hand,” Abed said in the release. “In addition to maintaining a balanced life, everyone should prioritize their mental health and self-care to help reduce the chance of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with any stressors.”

Stay hydrated

Hydration is vital for the body to carry out all of its necessary functions. Without proper hydration UAB said the following negative effects can occur:
  • Lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Increased thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Decreased urinary output
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fainting
To avoid experiencing severe dehydration symptoms that may send people to the emergency room, UAB recommended the following.

“To avoid dehydration, it is important for everyone to consume the recommended number of fluids each day — 3.7 liters of fluids a day for men and 2.7 liters of fluids a day for women,” said the release. “Although water is a great way to get these fluids in each day, beverages such as milk, juice and herbal teas can also help people stay hydrated. Water-rich foods can also help with hydration, including watermelon, oranges, grapefruits, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, spinach and lettuce.”

While UAB suggested that people follow these steps to stay out of the emergency room they said that once an emergency situation occurs people should still come as they normally would.

“If you are ever unsure about whether you are experiencing a medical emergency, we recommend going to the nearest emergency department,” Russell said in the release.

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