As Delta Retreats Experts Warn Darker Days Lie Ahead for Hospitals
(Bloomberg) -- The highly infectious omicron variant has flushed out the delta strain across the U.S., but the ascendance of the purportedly milder form of Covid-19 has done nothing so far to ease the burden on stretched hospitals.
The omicron variant represents about 98% of cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. That number is based on data for the week ending Jan. 8 and is a significant increase from just two weeks prior, when omicron accounted for 71.3% of cases.
Omicron’s heightened transmissibility coupled with the immunity some have built to combat the delta through vaccination and exposure, have made conditions favor the “more mild” variant, said David Wohl, a professor at the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But experts warn that for those who remain unvaccinated or who suffer from other health concerns, infection from any Covid-19 variant is a major concern. And without intervention, data signal dark days ahead for a health care system already stretched to its limit, they say.
In many parts of the U.S., the health care system is “collapsing under the weight of Covid patients,” said Neil Sehgal, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “I started to question whether or not this was the week the health care system would break.”
The most recent CDC Nowcast data predict that omicron is dominating caseloads in every region of the country. And while infections appear to be peaking in places that were hit early, such as New York City, the majority of cities are continuing to see infections eclipse previous records and hospitalizations skyrocket.
In Maryland, where Sehgal works, some hospitals have moved to crisis standards of care – meaning they have halted certain elective surgeries and redistributed staff. Hospitals in several other states, including Colorado and Oregon, have declared similar crises. Sehgal said that on Tuesday the Maryland Hospital Association pleaded with the public for better adherence to preventative measures, such as masking, and again pushed for vaccinations.
Some places are reinstating safety protocols to try to ease the burden on local hospitals. As cases exploded in Utah last week, Salt Lake County health director Angela Dunn issued a county-wide mask mandate, taking the additional step of requiring respirator-type masks, like KN95s, KN90s or KF94s. The county said they would provide the masks at no cost to those who needed them.
Preserving the capacity of the healthcare system is crucial, Sehgal said.
“If we don’t act now and we don’t act decisively, it will be too late,” Sehgal said. “Today’s cases are next week’s hospitalizations.”
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