At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, patient encounters with the health care system plummeted.1-3 The perceived increased risk of contracting COVID-19 while obtaining care was thought to be a contributing factor. In outpatient settings, one study noted a 63% decrease in visits to otolaryngology visits in Massachusetts, and another noted a 33% decrease in dental office visits at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 compared with the same time frame in 2019.2,4 Along with mask mandates and stay-at-home orders, various institutions sought to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through different protocols, including the use of social distancing, limitation of visitors, and telehealth. Despite some of these measures, nosocomial infections were not uncommon. For example, one hospital in the United Kingdom reported that 15% of COVID-19 inpatient cases in a 6-week period in 2020 were probably or definitely hospital acquired. These patients had a 36% case fatality rate.5
Unlike outpatient treatment centers, however, the emergency department (ED) is mandated by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act to provide a medical screening examination and to stabilize emergency medical conditions to all patients presenting to the ED. Thus, high numbers of undifferentiated and symptomatic patients are forced to congregate in EDs, increasing the risk of transmission of COVID-19. This perception of increased risk led to a 42% decrease in ED visits during March and April 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.1 Correspondingly, there was a 20% decrease in code stroke activations at a hospital in Canada and a 38% decrease in ST-elevation myocardial infarction activations across 9 United States hospital systems.6,7
Limited studies have been conducted to date to determine whether contracting COVID-19 while in the ED is a risk. One retrospective case-control study evaluating 39 EDs in the US showed that ED colocation with known patients with COVID-19 was not associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission.5 However, this study also recognized that infection control strategies widely varied by location and date.
In this study, we report the incidence of COVID-19 infections within 21 days after the initial visit for symptoms not associated with COVID-19 infection to the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) ED and compared it with that of COVID-19 infections for tests performed within the VAGLAHS.