Don't go to the emergency room or even an urgent care clinic just to get a COVID-19 test.
That's the pressing plea issued by the Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA). With at-home tests hard to find and the state's community testing options swamped, it may be tempting to head to your hometown hospital to find out if you're infected.
It's human nature to want an answer right away, but resist this temptation. Health care staff were already exhausted and their ranks diminished before the highly transmissible omicron variant arrived. Patients with heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, falls on the ice and other non-COVID needs require critical care.
Emergency rooms and bays are filled. Patients are awaiting treatment in hallways. Surgeries are delayed or canceled.
No, there isn't a health care professional free to come out to the waiting room and swab your nose or provide a spit tube, and then manage the processing and communication responsibilities that ensue.
"We have run out of words to describe what we are undergoing — a crisis does not even come close; hospitals are literally full," the MHA said in an alarming statement issued Friday.
In a follow-up interview, Dr. Rahul Koranne, MHA's president and CEO, told an editorial writer that the strain is statewide. "It is truly an amazing, all-hands-on-deck situation," Koranne said, citing examples of health care administrators busing trays or helping with call centers.
But worries are deepening about an even greater omicron surge over the coming weeks, particularly as staffing ranks are thinned by illness. That's why the MHA is asking for Minnesotans' assistance in easing pressure on emergency departments and urgent care centers, which face similar capacity issues.
A vital step for the time being: Go elsewhere if you just want a COVID test (though those with shortness of breath or other serious symptoms should still seek care promptly).
"This is a plea for help," Koranne said.
Among the alternatives are Minnesota's community testing sites, the state's Vault at-home test delivery, major pharmacy chains, other private testing firms, as well as over-the-counter self-tests like BinaxNOW or QuickVue.
Patience is in order as Minnesotans navigate alternatives. The reason: demand. Omicron is spreading rapidly. On Monday, Minnesota reported more than 10,000 new cases. Thousands of people are looking for a test at the same time.
The state recently announced it is adding community testing sites in Anoka, North Branch and Cottage Grove. It's also expanding capacity or hours at some existing sites, and has raised the daily cap on orders to 10,000 for its at-home test delivery program. Still, omicron's spread is unprecedented.
Appointments may not be immediately available and walk-ins may require a daunting wait. Early in the day is generally an advantageous time to go, a Vault Health spokeswoman said. Vault is partnering with the state on community testing operations.
Stocking up on over-the-counter tests, if you can find them, is another strategy. For those on Facebook, members of a group called Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters frequently trade tips on where to find tests across the state. The group requires Facebook users to join it.
An additional option: using tests you already may have. For example, if you ordered a home-delivered test from the state and haven't used it, now's the time (though check the expiration date). That will help alleviate pressure at testing sites.
The state's community test sites rely on medical professionals to staff them. They compete with health care systems for the same limited pool of employees. Testing staff may also be out sick with COVID or other illness. That's why expanding hours or capacity isn't as easy as it may seem.
Koranne said he empathizes with patients who want a test promptly. But with omicron spreading, the state's medical providers are "buckling down to try to get through the next couple of weeks." Minnesotans can and should help by finding other test solutions.