How omicron is hitting hospitals differently
Staffing shortages and a surge in cases strain healthcare facilities, but the disease appears less severe this time around
The rising number of coronavirus patients in U.S. hospitals, combined with staffing shortages made worse by doctors and nurses catching the virus themselves in recent days, has driven some facilities to desperation. On Monday, Eleanor Slater Hospital in Rhode Island allowed three staff members to come to work after they tested positive for COVID-19.
The situation highlights the conundrum hospitals find themselves in as the omicron variant of the coronavirus drives a surge in cases after months of retirements, resignations, or firings have eroded the nation’s medical workforce. Still, some hospitals said their COVID-19 patients have less severe illness than in previous waves.
The daily number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to the CDC has skyrocketed, averaging half a million a day—more than double the number during a similar winter wave one year ago. The current level of hospitalization in the United States is similar to that seen in September, when the delta variant was dominant. But hospitalizations haven’t yet matched last year’s all-time high of 124,000.
Even so, many medical facilities say they are swamped.
In Illinois, hospitals across the state on Tuesday reported a total of 6,842 patients with COVID-19, an all-time high. The state also set a new record for daily coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 32,279 new cases.
At a major health system in Illinois, Advocate Aurora Health, the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals had quadrupled in the past two months, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. In the Chicago region, officials counted 254 coronavirus deaths last week—Cook County’s highest weekly total in nearly a year. Anticipating a shortage of morgue space, county officials said on Wednesday they had started deploying trailers to hospitals to store bodies.
In Indiana, hospitals affiliated with Indiana University Health have more patients than beds, according to The Indianapolis Star. Senior Vice President Dr. Christopher Weaver said 553 of the hospital’s patients had COVID-19, a record high since the pandemic began. To assist strained staff, teams from the Indiana National Guard have deployed in 12 out of 16 hospitals in the IU Health network.
“All of our hospitals are stretched beyond prior belief,” Weaver said.
And in San Diego, Calif., the Scripps Health hospital system has seen a 162 percent increase in COVID-19 patients since Christmas Eve, according to CEO Chris Van Gorder. Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla canceled all inpatient surgeries on Tuesday due to a lack of beds and staff.
Hospitals like Scripps have seen a coronavirus surge not just in the ER, but among staff. “We had 43 employees with COVID in October, 49 in November, and 460 in December,” Van Gorder told KSWB-TV.
Conflicts over coronavirus vaccine mandates have compounded widespread staffing problems in the healthcare industry. Since mid-summer, thousands of hospital workers have resigned or been fired due to vaccination policies, Fierce Healthcare reported. Many of the nation’s remaining doctors and nurses say they are exhausted.
Eleanor Slater Hospital, which specializes in treating patients with mental illness or long-term maladies, said the coronavirus-positive employees who came to work on Monday wore masks and had no symptoms. It added that its policy was “consistent with CDC guidance that allows hospitals facing significant staffing challenges to utilize asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic workers.”
Dr. Rahul Sharma, the emergency physician in chief for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, told The New York Times that while hospitalizations had increased, the disease often seemed less severe.
“We’re not sending as many patients to the ICU, we’re not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged,” he said.
Also, included in current case counts are high numbers of “incidental” cases, in which the patient was admitted for a separate medical issue and then tested positive for the virus. At NewYork-Presbyterian, about half of COVID-19 cases were incidental. At NYU Langone Health, the proportion of incidental cases was about 65 percent. Langone was also seeing fewer ICU admissions for its COVID-19 patients than it saw a year ago, the Times reported.
Although new COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen sharply since mid-November, deaths from the virus have increased at a slower pace. However, experts say there is a lag between hospitalizations and deaths, so it is too early to predict the full effect of the current surge.