Taking Kids to the Emergency Department During COVID-19 Outbreak

April 16, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Karen L Eigen, M.D. contributes to topics such as Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

Kevin A Slavin, M.D. contributes to topics such as Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

Bringing your child to the emergency department can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may be anxious about your child’s immediate condition, but also concerned about entering a hospital environment that is treating both suspected and confirmed coronavirus patients. As we continue to navigate through this new reality, it’s critical for parents to remember that severe symptoms should never be taken lightly, and that any delay in seeking emergency treatment can create more dangerous health situations for children and put them more at risk for severe infection.

“We’re unfortunately seeing more instances where parents are feeling hesitant to bring their children into the emergency department because of fear of contracting the virus, in turn, resulting in much more severe cases upon admission,” says Kevin Slavin, M.D., Director of Quality for Children’s Health at Hackensack Meridian Health. “This is because certain symptoms, such as respiratory and abdominal issues, can manifest and wreak havoc more quickly in children than adults.”

Why it’s still safe to bring your child to the hospital

Contrary to what many may think, the emergency department is still a very safe place to go, especially for children, despite the pandemic. “The traditional scene of a packed emergency department waiting room is no longer the reality at this time,” adds Dr. Slavin.

Most hospitals are following stringent infection control practices to prevent the spread of the virus between patients and employees, including:

  • Implementation of universal masking policies, meaning all employees and patients must wear a mask at all times while in the hospital
  • Enforcing social distancing practices (physical distancing of 6 feet between people), when appropriate
  • Isolating all suspected and positive COVID-19 patients into private areas
  • Minimizing contact through advanced triaging systems, including direct admission/transfer to the hospital and bypassing the emergency department when possible
  • Limited visitation policies, allowing one support person for pediatric patients up to age 18
  • Following thorough protocols for regular cleaning and sanitizing of all surfaces and rooms, including UV light treatment, and adding an extra step of sanitation between patient encounters
  • Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals are testing all admitted patients for COVID-19, including patients admitted from the Emergency Department as an inpatient or observation case

When to bring your child in

Symptoms that need immediate evaluation include but are not limited to:

  • Fever of 100.4°F or higher in newborns 4 weeks of age or younger (fever in children older than 4 weeks may not need to be evaluated in an emergency department; your child’s pediatrician can help with decisions about seeking emergency evaluation)
  • Asthmatic episodes
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Severe injuries
  • Sleeping too much
  • Lack of appetite
  • Abnormal movements (seizures)

“Anything that would have prompted you to bring your child to the emergency department in the past should warrant a visit,” Dr. Slavin adds. “If your child has an emergency, try not to be distracted by the pandemic occurring and help them get the treatment they need quickly.”

What to expect and how to prepare your child

With COVID-19 influencing hospital policies concerning visitation and support during this time, it’s important for parents to be mindful that there may be new protocols, such as only allowing one guardian or support person for pediatric patients under the age of 18.

“In the case that you would like to accompany your young adult child over the age of 18, be prepared that you may not be able to enter the facility,” says Karen Eigen, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine physician at Hackensack University Medical Center. “While this may be upsetting, clinical teams are working to ensure active communication with the parents/guardians via telephone, and virtual communication, including video chat. Policies such as these are instituted to protect our patients and staff.”

If you think you need to bring your child to the emergency department, follow these steps:

  • Call your pediatrician first to assess the situation
  • Call the emergency department prior to arrival, or ask your pediatrician to call ahead, as this might allow the team to potentially meet you at your car and safely escort you in
  • Prepare your child for the potentially-frightening reality of seeing team members in masks and letting them know they will need to wear masks as well
  • Avoid bringing other children who don’t require medical care along with your sick child

Accessing care while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms

In the unique event that you or your child are experiencing COVID-19 related symptoms and you need to bring your child to the hospital for emergency care, health care professionals want you to know that you will not be separated from your child, as long as they are under the age of 18.

“As we see an increasing prevalence of COVID-19 positive patients, we must anticipate different scenarios occurring, such as a parent with symptoms having the need to bring their child for emergency care,” Dr. Eigen adds. “While we would recommend that any sick parent make arrangements for another trusted adult to bring their child in, we understand that is not always an option. If this is the case, it’s even more important to contact your emergency department before arrival to allow them to take extra care to decrease the possibility of accidental exposure to others during your visit.”

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.