What Should You Do in a Non-COVID-19 Medical Emergency?

Experts say you should still call 911, and even less serious ailments may require a visit to your doctor.

older man and doctor in masks looking at tablet

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on May 8, 2020

Seeing a doctor for something other than COVID-19 might seem scary right now. Is that bone really broken, or should you wait and see if it gets better on its own? Is that chest pain a sign of a heart attack, or did you just sit uncomfortably and pull a muscle? What about that agonizing toothache? Can you grit your teeth and bear it, while making sure not to grit too hard?

In cases like these, medical care is still available and you can seek it. “Don’t avoid care if something is really wrong,” says Eileen Bulger, MD, chair of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma and chief of trauma at Harborview Medical Center at UW Medicine in Seattle, Washington.

Even if it’s not COVID-19, the stakes can still be high: that bone might not set right, that chest pain could be a heart attack and that toothache may indicate an infection.

Here’s what to do if you need to seek medical care for a non-COVID emergency.

Call 911
If you are experiencing symptoms that would have you calling 911 in pre-COVID-19 times—things like a serious injury or chest pain—do the same now. “That’s just the safest thing for you to do, just like you normally would,” says Dr. Bulger.

While emergency departments are ready and prepared to take care of non-COVID-19 patients, the hospital experience these days may be different. Visitors might be strictly limited or banned. You’ll likely get screened for COVID-19 and may even have to be tested just to make sure you’re not an asymptomatic carrier. You’ll probably also have to wear a mask.

“We are ready and able to take care of you if you need help, especially for those time-sensitive diagnoses like stroke and heart attack,” says Jason Mackey, MD, a neurologist specializing in acute stroke treatment with Indiana University Health in Indianapolis.

Many hospitals across the country have seen a drop in stroke admissions during the COVID-19 crisis. Yale New Haven Hospital, for example, has reported a 60 to 80 percent drop, and Dr. Mackey says stroke volume admissions at his institution are down, as well.

That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are having strokes, but it may indicate that patients are scared to come to hospitals. Experts say it’s best to put those fears to rest.

“Hospitals have protocols,” Mackey notes. “We can take care of people safely if they have medical needs.”

Although some elective surgeries are still on hold in many states, emergency surgeries are still happening. “If you come in with a life-threatening emergency that needs an operation, you’re getting an operation—everywhere,” adds Bulger.

Call your healthcare provider
If your ailment doesn’t require immediate emergency services, your primary care physician or other healthcare provider is still a point person in assessing what kind of care you need, even if they are trying to limit how many people come into their offices.  

“Most primary care doctors are also doing telehealth visits,” notes Bulger, which can help reduce the risk of infected patients spreading the virus or non-infected patients catching it. “Doctors can look at you and give advice.”

If you don’t have a dedicated primary care physician, your insurance company may provide you with access a telehealth service. Some urgent care providers even have telehealth options to use before going into their offices. Your insurance provider may also offer coverage for these options, and you can also pay out of pocket if need be.

If you find yourself consulting with a doctor using digital technology, you’re in good company: some services have seen increases in virtual visits of up to 2,000 percent during the COVID-19 crisis.

Once you speak to a healthcare provider, they will be able to assist in deciding your next steps for care and where you should seek it.

Call your dentist
Just like a rolled ankle could be nothing—or could be something—so can tooth pain. Check with your dental provider to see the types of services they are currently offering in your area and where you can seek treatment.

The American Dental Association has issued guidance stating that providers should listen to their state mandates while using their professional judgment to decide when to start seeing patients again for non-emergency appointments.

Routine visits and certain procedures may be delayed, including:

  • Regular exams, cleanings and X-rays
  • Regular visits for braces
  • Removal of teeth that aren’t painful
  • Treatment of cavities that aren’t painful
  • Teeth whitening

Treatment may be required in the following urgent cases: 

  • Bleeding that doesn’t stop
  • Painful swelling in or around your mouth
  • Pain in a tooth, multiple teeth or in the jawbone
  • Gum infection with pain or swelling
  • Post-surgery treatment (dressing change, stitch removal)
  • Broken or knocked out tooth
  • Denture adjustment for people receiving radiation or other treatment for cancer
  • Snipping or adjustment of braces wires that have injured cheeks or gums
  • Biopsy of abnormal tissue

Just like a primary care doctor can assess next step care over the phone or video, dentists are consulting with patients virtually, as well. Many are using telemedicine to see patients and investigate problem areas, while having patients come into offices when necessary.

Article sources open article sources

Kevin Sheth. “Hospital admissions for strokes appear to have plummeted, a doctor says, a possible sign people are afraid to seek critical help.” Washington Post. April 9, 2020.
Matthew Finnegan. “Telehealth booms amid COVID-19 crisis; virtual care is here to stay.” Computer World. April 27, 2020.
University of Washington. “New patient admissions to undergo COVID-19 testing.” April 13, 2020.
American College of Radiology. “States With Elective Medical Procedures Guidance in Effect.” May 1, 2020.
American Dental Association. “Dental Appointments and COVID-19.”
Brandon Baker. “Penn Dental Medicine presses on with emergency care.” Penn Today. April 17, 2020.

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