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Hospitals: Please don't come to ER for COVID tests

The Menino Pavilion at Boston Medical Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Menino Pavilion at Boston Medical Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The shortage of at-home COVID tests and long lines at state testing sites are contributing to another problem: crowded hospital emergency rooms.

Hospitals say many patients with only minor illnesses — or no symptoms at all — are coming in for COVID tests because they can't get tested elsewhere.

Dr. Sadiqa Kendi at Boston Medical Center said it’s a serious problem for hospitals that need to focus on urgent medical issues. It also creates additional risk for patients who could become infected with COVID or other viruses while waiting to see a doctor in the emergency department (ED).

"We have so many sick patients in EDs currently, the ED is not the place where you want to be if you are asymptomatic and healthy," said Kendi, the division chief of pediatric emergency medicine at BMC. "Finding other sites is really important."

Kendi said the state needs more walk-in testing open on evenings and weekends, and more sites that will test young children.

Elaine Almquist, 37, of Somerville, said her family struggled to get tested this week after one relative tested positive on a rapid test.

She said they checked four different options, but didn't find any appointments available. And they found a line too long at a testing site in Everett run by Cataldo Ambulance Service.

The company's chief executive, Dennis Cataldo, said he's expanding the site's hours, setting up other testing clinics and adding more workers. But he said he's having a hard time finding enough people to operate all the sites.

"The test itself itself is a fairly quick procedure," he said. Finding testers, security and check-in staff? Not so much.

Almquist, who has a low fever, thought about visiting a hospital emergency room, but decided to quarantine instead.

"The ER is one of the testing options we have, but we think that will be more dangerous than just quarantining," Almquist told WBUR.

She ordered a test online, but isn't sure how long it will take to arrive. And in the meantime, she is hoping to get a rapid test kit from a friend.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story had incorrect information about state-run testing clinics. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on December 29, 2021.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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