Omicron disrupts essential services as workers call out

A US Marine veteran is treated by medical personnel in a negative pressure room in the Covid-19 ward at the campus of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System and Medical Center in West Roxbury, Massachusetts on January 11, 2022.

Joseph Precious | AFP | Getty Images

Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock gave US lawmakers an ominous warning this week: The nation needs to ensure police, hospital and transportation services are not disrupted as an unprecedented wave of omicron infections across the country is forcing people to call out sick.

Woodcock testified before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday: “It’s hard to address what’s really going on right now, which is that most people are going to get Covid.” “What we need to do is make sure that hospitals are still operating, and that transportation and other essential services are not disrupted while this is happening.”

Much like last winter when public officials were trying to contain the spread of Covid, public services and businesses across the United States are reducing and limiting working hours, some even temporarily closing. But this year, many workers have contracted the virus, and it is disrupting services that public officials are trying to keep open.

From New York to Los Angeles, emergency services are struggling to provide enough police, nurses, EMTs and firefighters as more and more workers call out with Covid. Public transportation systems in New York and Chicago are suspending or disrupting some services, airlines are reducing flights, and public officials have been forced to quarantine at home as a highly contagious omicron variant hacks through vaccine protection and sends large swaths of mostly unvaccinated people to the hospital.

The United States reported a pandemic record of nearly 1.5 million new COVID-19 infections on Monday, averaging about 750,000 new infections each day over the past week, according to CNBC’s analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That compares to a seven-day average of about 252,000 new cases per day a year ago.

Hospitalizations are also higher than last winter’s peak – before vaccinations were widely distributed – and continue to rise. More than 152,000 people in the United States have been hospitalized with Covid as of Wednesday, an 18% increase from last week, according to data tracked by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Many places across the country have reached the point where their staff members are getting sick,” Dr. Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said in an interview. She said the pressure on frontline workers is now worse than at any other point in the pandemic. “Pretty much the whole country right now is feeling this increase in the number of cases affecting employees.”

Hospitals faced a nurse shortage long before the United States detected its first omicron case in early December. The American Nurses Association in September called on the Biden administration to declare the nursing shortage a national crisis, as the delta variable was rising in many parts of the country at the time.

“The nation’s healthcare delivery systems are overwhelmed, nurses are tired and frustrated that this ongoing pandemic has no end in sight,” Ernest Grant, president of ANA, said at the time. “Nurses alone cannot solve this long-standing problem and it is not our burden to bear,” Grant said.

The omicron variant now threatens to compound long-standing staff shortages in hospitals by forcing nurses to call patients. Although most nurses are fully vaccinated, Omicron is able to evade some of the protection offered by the shots, causing more and more sudden infections across the country.

An average of more than 1,000 hospitals across the country are currently reporting an acute staff shortage, according to HHS data. However, the number is likely to be lower as many hospitals have not reported their case as of Wednesday

“The sudden and sharp rise in cases due to omicron is leading to an unprecedented number of daily cases, sickness, absenteeism, and stressing the system of diseases,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walinsky told reporters at a White House news briefing on COVID-19 on Wednesday. Our health care. . To help alleviate a potential staff shortage, the agency last month reduced isolation time for some health care workers who have contracted Covid — a controversial move that has been criticized by nursing groups across the country.

Dr. Gabi Keelen at Johns Hopkins Hospital said there were days when several hundred staff members called patients across the system’s five hospitals in Maryland and Washington, D.C., which includes everyone from nurses to facility staff who clean patient rooms, prepare food and stock rooms.

“You can only see how amazingly it is hindering operations at a time when organizations like ours need a surge of staff,” said Keelen, who heads the Hopkins Department of Emergency Medicine and directs the Office of Preparedness and Response.

“Given how crushing health care services are at the moment, losing nurses for five days in the event they had even a mild infection is just a huge, massive loss,” Keelen said.

The Biden administration has deployed hundreds of military doctors and nurses to support overcrowded hospitals and has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide emergency hospital beds and deploy ambulances and emergency medical kits to transport patients.

Police, fire and transit agencies are also struggling with staff as Omicron forces people to call in patients. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said more than 800 police and firefighters are isolating at home due to positive Covid test results as of last Thursday.

“This is an incredibly difficult moment,” Garcetti said during a news conference. “Omicron’s shape has exploded like wildfire.”

In New York City, 18% of EMS employees and 13% of firefighters are sick with Covid as of Tuesday, down from 30% for EMS and 18% for firefighters a few days ago, according to the FDNY. The New York City Police Department told CNBC on Tuesday that 12.5% ​​of the force was ill as of last Friday.

New York’s subway system, the largest in the country, has also suspended service on some lines due to staff shortages caused by Omicron. The Chicago Transportation Authority, which operates the nation’s second-largest public transportation system, also told the public there could be outages as workers call out due to Covid.

The virus has also infected top city and state officials. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday that it Tested positive for Covid You will work from home while you are isolated with cold-like symptoms. Lightfoot said she received a full vaccination and was boosted. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced early Wednesday that he had also tested positive, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted.

Airlines began canceling flights just before Christmas because oomicron infections among employees left them short-lived. United, JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines, Skywest and others have scaled back January schedules as Covid cases surge, leaving them without the pilots and other staff they need.

On Monday, United’s CEO told employees that 3,000 workers, about 4% of the US workforce, have tested positive for Covid.

For example, in just one day in Newark [New Jersey]Scott Kirby said in a memo to the task force:

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday that it was unclear when the Omicron wave would peak due to the difference in vaccination coverage across the United States. in others.

“It’s a very cunning virus,” Fauci told lawmakers at the hearing. “She’s fooled everyone all along — from the time she debuted in Delta to now omicron — very unpredictable and we’re doing our best.”

CNBC’s Leslie Josephs and Nate Ratner contributed to this report

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo