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Omicron cases may be peaking in some US states, but COVID is overwhelming hospitals


Hospitals across the country face staffing shortages as they cope with a soaring number of omicron cases.

By Ron DePasquale, Alyssa Lukpat, Carl Zimmer and Grace Ashford


A wave of omicron cases may be cresting in the Northeastern United States, but the number of COVID-19 patients is at a record high and climbing, overwhelming hospitals whose staffs have been hollowed out by the coronavirus.


Public health leaders warn that while the number of Americans getting infected every day remains dangerously high, there is no guarantee that the population is building enough natural immunity to hasten the day that the virus becomes a manageable part of daily life.


Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was asked Monday at the online World Economic Forum whether this might be the year when that happens. “I would hope that that’s the case,” he said, “but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response.”


Fauci said the evolution of the pandemic was still impossible to chart. “The answer is: We do not know,” he said.


The United States is averaging more than 790,000 new daily cases, a tally that includes an artificially low count Monday, when many states did not release new data because of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Deaths now exceed 1,900 a day, up 54% over the past two weeks.


Even before the holiday weekend, daily cases had peaked in New York and other Northeastern states. According to a New York Times database, cases in the region peaked Jan. 10-11.


Although scientists believe that omicron can cause less severe disease than previous variants, the sheer number of cases has created a tsunami of patients seeking care. Hospitals are under tremendous strain, struggling to manage staffing shortages that force difficult decisions about whose care to prioritize.


The average number of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus is 157,000, an increase of 54% over two weeks. And the number could continue increasing for some time: Experts say data on deaths and hospitalizations tends to lag behind pure case numbers by about two weeks. The hospitalization figures include people who test positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to COVID-19.


The omicron surge is slamming understaffed hospitals where many workers are sick with COVID-19 and others where those who quit under the pressure of the pandemic have not been replaced.


Intensive care units, as of the week that ended Jan. 13, were an average 82% full, according to a New York Times database. In Oklahoma City on Monday, four hospitals issued a statement saying they had no ICU beds available.


After last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that approved the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, hospitals were bracing themselves for possible resistance and more staff shortages.


And while it is too soon to know how this record-shattering wave will shape the pandemic, it is bound to have some effect, said William Hanage, a public health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


“In due course, the immunity from omicron (or boosters, or both) will wane and breakthrough infections will be possible,” he wrote in a text message. “But we expect them to be milder. That’s not ‘herd immunity,’ because outbreaks will be possible. However, their consequences will be much less severe.”

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