What Should You Do in a Non-COVID-19 Medical Emergency?

About a 5 minute read

By: Jen A. Miller

Experts say you should still call 111, and even less serious ailments may require a visit to your doctor.

Seeing a doctor for something other than COVID-19 might seem scary right now. Is that bone really broken, or should you wait and see if it gets better on its own? Is that chest pain a sign of a heart attack, or did you just sit uncomfortably and pull a muscle? What about that agonising toothache? Can you grit your teeth and bear it, while making sure not to grit too hard?

At Alert Level 2 general practices, community health, and addiction services in New Zealand are open. These services are provided in ways that keep everyone safe, which means appointments are mainly online or by telephone.

Hospitals are open for all emergency care, but outpatient appointments are mainly online or by telephone. Numbers of visitors are limited and if you’re allowed to visit these facilities, they’ll record your contact details. Facilities must follow hygiene and distancing practices.

Mental health and addiction in-patient and residential services are open. Allied health providers such as physiotherapists, dietitians and dentists can open but they must have safety measures such as screens, personal protective equipment and contact tracing practices.

Even if your condition is not COVID-19, the stakes can still be high: that bone might not set right, that chest pain could be a heart attack and that toothache may indicate an infection.

Here’s what to do if you need to seek medical care for a non-COVID emergency.

Call 111
If you are experiencing symptoms that would have you calling 111 in pre-COVID-19 times—things like a serious injury or chest pain—do the same now.

While emergency departments are ready and prepared to take care of non-COVID-19 patients, the hospital experience these days may be different. Visitors might be strictly limited or banned. You’ll likely get screened for COVID-19 and may even have to be tested just to make sure you’re not an asymptomatic carrier. You’ll probably also have to wear a mask.

Many hospitals across the world have seen a drop in stroke admissions during the COVID-19 crisis. Yale New Haven Hospital in U.S., for example, has reported a 60 to 80 percent drop. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are having strokes, but it may indicate that patients are scared to come to hospitals. Experts say it’s best to put those fears to rest.

Planned care in New Zealand, including elective surgery and radiology, will be provided in order of clinical priority. Some non-urgent services or treatment may be deferred.

Call your healthcare provider
If your ailment doesn’t require immediate emergency services, your primary care physician or other healthcare provider is still a point person in assessing what kind of care you need, even if they are trying to limit how many people come into their offices.

It is important to still contact your health professional or Healthline (0800 611 116) as you normally would. You can access all the treatments, vaccinations and medicines you need to stay well, whether or not the care you need relates to COVID-19.

Once you speak to a healthcare provider, they will be able to assist in deciding your next steps for care and where you should seek it.

Call your dentist
Just like a rolled ankle could be nothing—or could be something—so can tooth pain. Check with your dental provider to see the types of services they are currently offering in your area and where you can seek treatment.

As per the MoH & DCNZ Joint Guidelines and NZDA Safety Standards at Alert Level 2 dentists can provide routine dental care and urgent or emergency dental care, for patients who are NOT:

  • COVID-positive
  • suspected to be COVID-positive
  • a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case, or have not been in isolation with a suspected case in the last 14 days
  • exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19
  • international travellers in the last 14 days.

Dentists can provide only urgent or emergency care for patients who are:

  • COVID-positive
  • suspected to be COVID-positive
  • a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case, or have been in isolation with a suspected case in the last 14 days
  • exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19
  • international travellers in the last 14 days

Routine visits and certain procedures may be delayed, including:

  • Regular exams, cleanings and X-rays
  • Regular visits for braces
  • Removal of teeth that aren’t painful
  • Treatment of cavities that aren’t painful
  • Teeth whitening

Treatment may be required in the following urgent cases:

  • Bleeding that doesn’t stop
  • Painful swelling in or around your mouth
  • Pain in a tooth, multiple teeth or in the jawbone
  • Gum infection with pain or swelling
  • Post-surgery treatment (dressing change, stitch removal)
  • Broken or knocked out tooth
  • Denture adjustment for people receiving radiation or other treatment for cancer
  • Snipping or adjustment of braces wires that have injured cheeks or gums
  • Biopsy of abnormal tissue

Just like a primary care doctor can assess next step care over the phone or video, dentists are consulting with patients virtually, as well. Many are using telemedicine to see patients and investigate problem areas, while having patients come into offices when necessary.

Medically reviewed in May 2020.

Kevin Sheth. “Hospital admissions for strokes appear to have plummeted, a doctor says, a possible sign people are afraid to seek critical help.” Washington Post. April 9, 2020.
Matthew Finnegan. “Telehealth booms amid COVID-19 crisis; virtual care is here to stay.” Computer World. April 27, 2020.
University of Washington. “New patient admissions to undergo COVID-19 testing.” April 13, 2020.
American College of Radiology. “States With Elective Medical Procedures Guidance in Effect.” May 1, 2020.
American Dental Association. “Dental Appointments and COVID-19.”
Brandon Baker. “Penn Dental Medicine presses on with emergency care.” Penn Today. April 17, 2020.
New Zealand Dental Association. (2020). Protecting your health. Retrieved from https://www.nzda.org.nz/covid-19/protecting-your-health
New Zealand Government Unite against Covid 19. (2020). Health services at alert level 2. Retrieved from https://covid19.govt.nz/individuals-and-households/health-and-wellbeing/how-to-access-healthcare/#health-services-at-alert-level-2
New Zealand Ministry of Health. (2020). Health and disability services alert level 2. Retrieved from https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-current-situation/health-and-disability-services-alert-level-2#hospitals

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