Fearing a Trip to the E.R., Parents Are Avoiding Risky Behavior at Home More Than Ever

While a trip to the emergency room is never fun, under the specter of the coronavirus, many parents are worried. But here's why you should still go for serious injuries, even during times like these.

boy on ground from falling off bicycle wearing helmet
Photo: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (1)

When it comes to kids, a visit to the emergency room is almost a rite of passage. Rough play, risk-taking, and the tendency to not grasp the consequences of certain actions make for a perfect storm of potential injuries—broken bones, lacerations, even concussions—that could land an otherwise healthy child in the E.R. And as I sat on my front porch watching my two boys climb trees in the front yard, it was all I could do not to call them in immediately, wrap them in bubble wrap, and sit them on the couch, safe from the dangers of play.

And it's weird. I've never been the kind of parent who discourages risky play. Taking risks is important for kids' development in more ways than one. It teaches problem-solving and critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, and what a boost to the confidence when they finally reach that one branch they've been reaching for! But now, with COVID-19 breathing down our necks, my impulse is to keep them safe above all else because I assumed the emergency room would be the last place we wanted to go during a pandemic.

As it turns out though, the E.R.s in most hospitals across the country aren't seething with virus particles lurking on every surface. In fact, many of them aren't that busy at all. Several news outlets have reported declining emergency department patient loads recently. The types of patients they normally see (sometimes affectionately called the "walking well") just aren't coming in anymore, and worryingly, numbers of heart attack and stroke patients are declining as well. And it's most likely because patients are afraid of becoming infected with COVID-19. But are those fears warranted?

Should Parents Avoid the Emergency Room?

"No one should be avoiding care because of concern of catching COVID-19 in the emergency department (E.D.)," says Elizabeth Murray, D.O., MBA. Emergency departments have always been on the frontlines of infection mitigation. With the number and variety of patients they see on a regular basis, avoiding cross-contamination of infectious agents has always been a priority.

"It is not unusual to have a person with a weak immune system because of cancer treatment in the E.D. at the same time as a person sick with pneumonia or other infections," explains Dr. Murray. "Yes, COVID-19 has changed some of our protocols with regard to the equipment we wear for each patient evaluation, but our overall process of infection isolation has not changed. We never know what will be coming through our doors so we are always ready for anything, including unusual infections or exposures."

What to Do If You Think Your Child Needs to Visit the E.R.

If your bubble wrap fails and your child gets hurt, the best thing to do is to call your pediatrician first. If your child is seriously hurt, then you should call 911. "In general, the advice I give is, if something terrible has happened and you feel you need to call 911, then still definitely call 911," says Dr. Murray. "Otherwise, it's generally a good idea to check in with your pediatrician because they can sometimes help over the phone or coordinate care for your child without going to the E.D."

One thing to keep in mind, especially in metro areas and virus hotspots, is that some emergency rooms are strictly for coronavirus patients now. "Right now, because of COVID-19, it is also important to check in with your child's doctor because some Urgent Cares and emergency departments have been re-assigned as COVID-19 centers," explains Dr. Murray. "Your doctor will likely have the most current information about the best place for you to go with your child."

What Should Be Seen in the E.R. and What Should Be Seen at the Pediatrician's Office?

Pretty much anything that would normally mean a visit to the emergency room still means you should go to the emergency room. According to Dr. Murray, this includes:

  • broken bones,
  • animal bites to the face,
  • severe dehydration,
  • fevers in infants less than 60 days old,
  • and children with complex medical conditions who are ill with an infection or worsening of their chronic condition.

Again, if you need to call 911, call 911, otherwise, give your regular a pediatrician a call so they can help direct you.

Many pediatric offices are offering telemedicine services for less serious conditions like stomach bugs without dehydration, skin rashes, and ear infections, though for things that need testing, like strep, the flu, and urinary tract infections, office visits are still required.

  • RELATED: Can I Go to the Doctor? Here's What Conditions Are Still Being Treated in an Office

It's a scary time to be a parent, but you shouldn't let the fear of your child contracting the coronavirus keep you from seeking care for them when necessary, and you should probably take off that bubble wrap safety suit and just let them play. That isn't to say they should be scaling cliffs or learning to rollerblade for the first time while there's a pandemic, but a little tree climbing never hurt anyone ... too much.

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