The number of phone calls made to the emergency department at Fort HealthCare has increased in recent weeks as has the number of people showing up with breathing problems, a health official for the hospital said.

“We feel that over the past month this has significantly increased. We have also seen a significant increase in COVID positive patients,” said Marie Wiesmann, vice president of nursing services. “People are anxious and concerned with symptoms of COVID and just want immediate answers which we cannot give them.”

Wiesmann said the hospital also is getting more calls from people who are concerned they might have contracted coronavirus.

“More phone calls have been made to the emergency department regarding concerns around their health and when to come to the ED for care,” she said.

It’s not uncommon during cold and flu season for someone to have a cough or some trouble breathing. But how that is viewed now by health care systems and the patients they see is changing rapidly.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Fort HealthCare is using a nurse triage team to field phone calls from patients as cold and flu season begins to best guide them to where to go – whether that is a clinic, telehealth or even the emergency room.

“The triage line can work in a few ways. Patients can contact the triage line directly or contact their clinic,” said Miranda DeThier, a physician assistant at Fort HealthCare.

The COVID triage line is staffed by nurses who schedule and provide guidance for patients finding the best options for their symptoms.

By doing this, patients can be pointed in the right direction and not overwhelm the emergency room if they don’t need to be there.

On average, DeThier recommends that a patient contact their primary care clinic directly first based on what they are looking for – either COVID information, or setting up a visit.

“Then (they are) put in touch with a nurse who can talk through their symptoms and go through a triage process to determine the best next step,” she said. “Based on the discussion with the nurse, the patient will be provided home care advice, recommendations regarding role of testing, quarantine. Occasionally the symptoms are severe enough that our nurses will recommend an emergency or urgent care visit.”

The triage team currently is taking about 200 calls a day, she said. And there are additional calls that go to nurses in the clinics.

Since there are similarities in the symptoms of cold and flu season and COVID-19, the job to determine a path of care is critical.

“We are using information provided by patients about known exposure, vaccination history, and exact symptoms to determine what testing/evaluation is needed for an individual,” DeThier said.

While it is very early in the cold and flu season, DeThier said the clinics are seeing multiple differences when compared with last year. She said people and businesses are taking even mild symptoms seriously.

“In the past people would continue to work with a mild cold/cough/runny nose, but this year more people are contacting us about their symptoms and trying to stay home while symptoms are present,” DeThier said.

“Additionally, we see employers supporting and encouraging people to stay home when symptoms are present. Avoiding others and seeking care recommendations when symptoms are present is a great way to prevent spread of COVID19, influenza, or any infectious illness.”

When the pandemic first hit in the state, many people postponed health care. But now, DeThier said that has changed a lot since the shutdown that began in March.

People now are scheduling their appointments for routine health care.

While some care is routine, people need to pay attention to symptoms and know when to go to the emergency room.

“Always go to emergency room if you can’t breathe, or have chest pain,” DeThier said.

She said some of the calls that come in to the line can vary from a person feeling sick and wanting to know the next step, to a person who believes they have been exposed to the virus.

“If you have trouble breathing, I need to figure out why,” she said.

The clinics and hospital also are taking so many precautions with the virus to keep people safe.

“We are really trying to commit to the importance of coming back in. Follow up. It really has to do with how long you can safely go,” she said.

“We are getting in routine care, and not delaying much at this point.”

The virus continues to surge in Wisconsin, placing the state near the top of daily cases in the nation. On Monday, the state had one of the lowest case totals in recent weeks, although the number still is high. The state saw 7,090 cases of the virus on Monday.

In Jefferson County, there have been 4,392 cases of the virus since March.

And with Thanksgiving next week, DeThier said this year needs to look different. And that may be a Zoom holiday or waving to family members from outside. But she said it’s important to stay connected for the mental health aspect of the holiday.

“Family is so important, and we need to support each other,” she said.

But DeThier warned that without proper caution the holidays could bring more cases.

“I think if we are not cautious during that time we will see a spike,” she said.

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