Omicron surge sweeps through US hospital staff

COVID nurse in ICU
COVID nurse in ICU

Patrik Slezak / iStock

As COVID-19 cases in the United States soar in the wake of the holidays, led by the highly transmissible Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant, nearly a quarter of hospitals are reporting critical staffing shortages due to workers being sick or off work for quarantine.

Meanwhile, federal and states are expanding vaccination activities and policies to protect more people.

Worrisome hospital staff shortages

As healthcare workers face exposure risks at home and in hospital settings, many facilities are stretched thin, with facilities this time juggling big burdens on general wards alongside busy intensive care units.

US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data show that 141,385 hospital beds are currently in use by COVID-19 patients, approaching the record peak from January 2021. With rising numbers of health workers calling in sick, some facilities are leaving some beds empty, because they don't have enough staff to safety fill them with patients, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Currently, about 24% of US hospitals report critical staffing shortages, the highest of the pandemic, and many facilities are starting to limit elective surgeries and consider crisis standards of care.

Colorado's health department on Jan 7 reactivated its crisis standards of care for emergency medical services, due to many emergency medical service (EMS) staff out sick and a high demand for patient transports.

State officials last activated the EMS crisis standards of care in April 2020 when Colorado was among the first states affected in the nation's first COVID-19 surge. In November, it reactivated crisis standards of care for staffing healthcare systems, allowing hospitals more flexibility in boosting staff to meeting increasing community medical needs.

Regional COVID-19 variations

On CBS "Face the Nation" yesterday, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said Omicron activity has already peaked in some Mid Atlantic states, with Omicron now setting its sights on the Midwest, where the pace is picking up.

The US 7-day average is now at more than 714,000 cases a day, up from about 410,000 cases a day a week ago, according to the Washington Post tracker. Also, 7-day average for deaths is nearly 1,600 a day, with new hospitalizations averaging almost 100,000 a day over the past week.

The US COVID-19 total just topped 60 million cases, and more than 838,000 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

As cases surge, efforts are under way to ease and extend vaccine protection through primary doses and boosters. Massachusetts, Illinois, and Oregon are among the states that are launching mass vaccination sites, according to the New York Times.

At the federal level, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday updated its guidance for quarantine and isolation for the third time in 2 weeks. The update organizes the information into charts that make the steps easier to read and follow.

Meanwhile, the US Postal Service is seeking a 120-day delay in complying with the Biden administration vaccine mandate for workers at large companies, according to NPR. The mandate was schedule to take effect today, but several states have challenged the measure, which is under review by the Supreme Court.

International COVID headlines

  • An advisory group from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) last week weighed in on a potential animal role as it relates to SARS-CoV-2 evolution and the Omicron variant. It said a rapid genetic assessment doesn't show a close relation to any viruses collected from animals, but it adds that animal samples to compare with viruses from humans are limited. The OIE said, however, that its experts can't rule out an animal connection, because of the identification of Omicron spike mutations associated with adaptation in mice as demonstrated in experimental studies.

  • China reported its first confirmed local Omicron cases, which involve two people in the northern port city of Tianjin. Officials have limited movement out of the city and are doing mass testing to identify other spread of the virus.

  • The global total today climbed to 309,161,751 million cases, along with 5,492,990 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins data.

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