The Omicron variant has pushed COVID back to concerning heights. New infections in the U.S. have increased by more than 85 percent over the last week because of the variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Thankfully, many of these infections have been mild, especially among vaccinated and boosted individuals. During a Jan. 5 press briefing, top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, confirmed that research shows Omicron is less severe. But both Fauci and doctors on the front lines are warning against letting this news cause complacency, as hospitals around the country are still filling up with COVID patients.
Craig Spencer, MD, an emergency room doctor working in New York City and the director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at Columbia Medicine, wrote a Jan. 10 op-ed for The New York Times chronicling the major problems being seen amid the spread of the Omicron variant. Despite vaccines and the fact that the new variant is said to cause milder disease, the ongoing surge is still causing danger for hospitals overall, according to Spencer.
“A highly contagious variant like Omicron, even if it causes milder illness, can still risk precipitating the failure of our health care system,” he warned.
It’s not all bad news, especially compared to the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, intensive care units were regularly overfilled and health care workers were overwhelmed with patients who needed supplemental oxygen and ventilators. According to Spencer, he hasn’t had to put any patients on a ventilator so far during this recent Omicron wave, nor have most patients needed supplemental oxygen. Beyond that, health care workers also have more tools to treat the virus, such as medications like steroids and oral antivirals.
Even so, “these tools are still not enough to slow the rapid influx of patients we’re now seeing from Omicron, and the situation is bleak for health workers and hospitals,” Spencer explained. “And even though nearly all of my patients are experiencing milder illness compared with March 2020, they still take up the same amount of space in a hospital bed.”
According to the ER doctor, the high number of COVID-positive patients is also creating another source of exposure for health care workers, “who are being sidelined in numbers I’ve never seen before,” he said.
Many hospitals are currently experiencing more employee infections at one time right now than they’ve seen during the entire pandemic. There have been at least 819,000 COVID cases among health care workers as of Jan. 2022, according to ABC News. But during this wave alone, some hospitals in the U.S. have already lost 15 percent of their employees or more, Spencer said. And while one worker can step in to cover shifts of an infected employee, there are only so many people to go around.
“The harsh reality is this: 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,” Spencer warned. “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.”
The consequences could be fatal, according to Bob Wachter, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “The new Omicron math: somewhat milder x massively more infectious = overwhelmed hospitals and lots of deaths,” Wachter tweeted on Jan. 6.
So, how can this be prevented? According to both Spencer and Fauci, preventative measures that have been encouraged since the start of the pandemic are even more important right now. While you might be less worried about catching COVID because Omicron is producing milder illness, infections can still turn severe. You may end up needing hospitalization—or you could infect someone who will. And Spencer warned that “leaning too heavily on us and our hospital beds is foolhardy” right now.
“Collective actions over the coming weeks—the distribution and use of high-quality masks, staying home if not feeling well and getting vaccinated or a booster if eligible—could help prevent hospitals and health care workers from sliding into crisis,” he concluded.