Overcrowding at Pediatric ERs Has Area Hospitals Urging Parents to Visit Pediatrician, Urgent Care First

Top doctors from Chicago area hospitals are coming together, urging parents to find the right level of care for their child before packing into overcrowded emergency rooms

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Doctors from a half dozen Chicago-area hospitals, along with the top health officials in Illinois, say local hospital emergency rooms are seeing unprecedented numbers of patients with non life-threatening illnesses, such as the common cold or other respiratory viruses.

“We are seeing two times as many children in the ER in September than this time last year,” said Dr. Melissa Rice, Chair of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

“This surge is straining the health system, leading to extended wait periods,” said Dr. Elizabeth Alpern, Head of Emergency Medicine at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.

In addition to Rush and Lurie, doctors from University of Chicago Medicine Comer’s Children’s Hospital, Advocate Children’s Hospital, UI Health and Loyola Medicine echoed similar concerns at a joint news conference at Lurie Children’s Hospital Wednesday.

"We are seeing somewhere between three and five-fold the number of children with respiratory illnesses in our emergency room,” said Dr. John Cunningham, Chair of Pediatrics at Comer Children’s Hospital.

Respiratory illnesses including RSV and even the common cold are surging, as capacity restrictions and other mitigations have been lifted in Illinois as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“Now that we’re more open, they’re back. So, in effect, we’re seeing two years-worth of common childhood illnesses at the same time,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The respiratory illnesses share some common symptoms with COVID-19 and doctors say that has concerned parents heading straight to the emergency room, despite testing availability at other sites such as immediate and urgent care centers, pediatricians’ offices and more.

“Testing is so available now. We urge parents, to contact their primary care physician before heading to the ER,” said Dr. Jerold Stirling, Chair of Pediatrics at Loyola Medicine.

Doctors say there are times when a child should go to the emergency room right away, including newborns with a fever over 100.4 degrees and when a child has trouble breathing, faints, suffers a severe asthma attack or severe dehydration.

For concerns that aren’t life-threatening, hospitals are urging parents to call their pediatrician or family doctor first.

“What this is not is a call to tell people to not seek medical care. What we are saying is we want people to seek the appropriate level of care and to best do that you can talk with a medical provider to better understand where you will be best served,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

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