PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ With emergency rooms across Rhode Island experiencing overcrowding and significantly longer waiting times, the R.I. Department of Health is urging everyone to only visit the hospital if they’re in need of emergency care.

“Emergency departments are perfect for emergency situations,” R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. “If someone is experiencing a serious health issue, they should absolutely call 911 or go to an emergency department right away. However, emergency departments treat patients with the most serious health issues first, which means that people with less severe conditions may experience long waits.”

Alexander-Scott said those with less serious health issues should visit an urgent care or consult their primary care physician before visiting the emergency room.

“Our hospitals stand ready to safely treat anyone who needs care regardless of the day or time. If you have a health emergency, call 911. But, if you are not sure whether your health issue is an emergency, call your primary care physician,” President of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island Teresa Paiva Weed said. “If you haven’t seen your primary care physician in a while, make an appointment because primary care is the best way to manage existing health conditions and prevent an emergency.”

The Health Department said the patient volume remains high due to the ongoing pandemic, and a shortage of clinical staff has exacerbated the situation.

“Hospitals locally and around the country are facing shortages of certain clinical staff, such as nurses, since many frontline staff have decided to work less and some have left healthcare after the stresses of over a year of providing care during a global pandemic,” Lifespan Physician-in-Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Jeremiah Schuur said. “It’s important that people who do not need emergency level care be treated by their primary care provider or at an urgent care facility, so that our emergency departments can focus on the critically ill and injured, and all patients can receive the care they need in the most appropriate setting.”

Anyone experiencing the following symptoms should not visit an urgent care and instead head to the nearest emergency room immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent chest pain or chest pressure
  • New weakness in an arm, leg or face
  • New difficulty speaking or confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds – depending on skin tone

Anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or is symptomatic should notify the facility they’re visiting. Masks are required at all times in all health care settings.