As Omicron sweeps through the nation, more Americans are hospitalized with Covid-19 than at any other point in the pandemic. It’s a staggering milestone and a dire warning that our health care system is overtaxed weeks before we reach the variant’s predicted peak.
Nearly 146,000 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 as of Tuesday, data from Health and Human Services showed. That’s a record and double the number from just two weeks ago. The actual number of people hospitalized with Covid is likely even higher. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of data from Feb. 2020 through Sept. 2021, hospitalization numbers have been undercounted throughout the pandemic, with only one out of every 1.9 Covid hospitalizations being reported. The previous hospitalization peak happened in Jan. 2021, when HHS reported 142,246 Covid hospitalizations.
Still, the nation hasn’t seen the worst of Omicron yet. Disease modelers have predicted hospitalizations will likely double again, reaching between 275,000 and 300,000 when the Omicron wave peaks sometime near the end of this month, The Washington Post reported on Monday. Many hospitals, however, are already stretched beyond capacity as health care providers struggle to keep up with case loads while providing adequate care. Some hospital systems have been intentionally keeping beds open due to a shortage of nurses to staff them, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s definitely a brutal situation,” Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas, told the Journal. Many health care providers felt burned out before the current peak, and the Omicron wave has only made it worse. Both burnout and providers testing positive for the virus have been contributing to staffing shortages. One hospital, Boston’s Mass General Brigham, had 2,000 of its 82,000 employees test positive for Covid in the 10 days before Jan. 4, the paper reported. To cope with the influx of positive patients and dwindling staff numbers, some hospitals are ordering Covid-positive doctors, nurses, and other providers back to work sooner that at other times in the pandemic, thanks to the CDC’s new shortened guidelines for isolation.
The stress that providers have endured over the last two years has taken a serious toll. According to Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, as of November, between 60-75 percent of clinicians reported experiencing symptoms of exhaustion, depression, sleep disorders and PTSD. Nurses, he said, are equally as stressed, if not more. Dzau added that approximately one in five health care workers have quit their jobs during the pandemic.
“The harsh reality is this,” Dr. Craig Spencer, an emergency room physician, wrote in The New York Times on Monday. “Fewer providers means fewer available beds because there are only so many patients a team can treat at a time. This also means treatment is slower and people will spend more time in the ER. And the longer these patients stay in the ER, the longer others remain in the waiting room. The domino effect will affect all levels of the health care system, from short-staffed nursing homes to ambulances taking longer to respond to 911 calls.”