The emergency departments at many hospitals around the country have shifted their efforts to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak, including those of UNC Health.

Compared to other areas of hospitals, emergency departments are relatively quiet right now with many people staying at home.

Dr. Abhi Mehrotra, who is overseeing UNC Health’s emergency department response to the coronavirus pandemic, says the departments are seeing just 40 to 50 percent of their usual volume of patients with injuries or needing procedures. But he says the healthcare system is not waiting for a potential surge of coronavirus cases to determine a course of action.

“The real impact has been almost a complete change of our processes during this period of time,” says Mehrotra, “and making a mindset change of thinking about this as a sprint or single event to address and more as a marathon.” 

The doctor, who is also the vice chair of operations for the UNC Department of Emergency Medicine in Chapel Hill, says the department is working to direct patients appropriately, with one component being screening tents set up outside the EDs to then send them to the necessary units. He says the procedures for patients admitted to the hospital after being in the emergency department have also changed.

The system’s various campuses and facilities have regularly been in contact, according to Mehrotra, sharing ways emergency departments are handling or preparing to handle positive COVID-19 cases.

“That’s been a real blessing: the group of emergency departments being able to work together, learn from each other, identify issues and bring them up,” he says.

Mehrotra says an example is one method of communication with coronavirus patients practiced by UNC Health facilities in Smithfield and Clayton, which is now being used across many more.

“Using baby monitors in the room as a simple walkie-talkie,” he says. “You can limit the number of times [staff] need to go into a room dressed in PPE [and are] exposing staff, exposing patients and utilizing the PPE. Those are the kind of on-the-ground tips and tools we’ve been able to share across our system.”

Mehtrotra says while the departments are prepping for further increases in coronavirus cases, it doesn’t mean anyone with a serious injury or illness should refrain from visiting the ED.

“That’s one of the things that concerns me, is that patients are not seeking care [when they] need to be,” he says. “We have seen a decrease in volumes and the patients arriving tend to be sicker with non-COVID related complaints than what we traditionally see.”

To learn more about UNC Health’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the healthcare system’s coronavirus web page.

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