U.S. hospitals are once again ‘at a breaking point’ with delta and omicron


Every morning in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, 200 to 400 people wait in an emergency room for a bed to come open.

“That’s the highest number ever,” said Dr. J. Kevin Croston, the CEO of North Memorial Health, which operates more than two dozen health care facilities in the area.

One of those sites, North Memorial Health Hospital, has brought in a refrigerated truck to help extend its morgue capacity in grim anticipation of what this wave of the pandemic could bring.

“We’re at that point in time where there’s so much death they don’t build hospital morgues to handle situations like this,” he said.

Hospitals are once again filling up across the country as case numbers skyrocket. The most recent surge — fueled by the fast-spreading, highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus — is arriving at hospitals as they are still battling the virus’s delta variant and trying to manage the ongoing shortage of personnel. 

“I am terrified right now. It’s hard for me to fathom having to care for more than we already are currently,” Croston said.

Last week, North Memorial Health and multiple other health systems across the state pleaded for help in a full-page newspaper advertisement.

“We’re heartbroken. We’re overwhelmed,” the ad says, asking, “How does this happen in 2021?”

It calls on people to get vaccinated, wear masks, practice social distancing and get tested if they are exposed or feeling sick, a familiar but urgent refrain from health care officials in a country weary of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations around the nation have risen 39 percent from Nov. 1 to Tuesday, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of people with Covid has risen by 30 percent in the last two weeks, according to NBC News’ tally.

Capt. Edward Rauch Jr., an Army critical care nurse, left, tends to a Covid-19 patient on a ventilator at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Mich., on Friday. Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images

“We’ve more than doubled our cases in the last two weeks,” Dr. Eric Dickson, the president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care system in central Massachusetts, said Monday. “We’re at 178 today in the hospital. A couple of weeks ago, I think we were at 75.”

As of Tuesday morning, hospitalizations in Massachusetts were up by 97.5 percent from four weeks ago.

Nearly 80 percent of Covid patients who were hospitalized at UMass Memorial Health Care were unvaccinated, Dickson said.

The latest surge has led to a postponement of inpatient elective hospital procedures and the redeployment of doctors from some primary care clinics to hospitals where the immediate need is greater. The health care system also is paying “unbelievable rates for traveling nurses to come in and support our existing staff,” Dickson said. 

“We’re just so weakened by the whole 18 months of Covid building up to this,” he said.  

The majority of the cases at UMass Memorial appear to still be caused by the delta variant, meaning the hospital system, already under tremendous strain, is still awaiting the “great unknown” of the omicron variant, Dickson said.

“I’m just looking at this next three, four weeks and what this could be like, and it’s scary. I have an impending sense of doom. I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said. 

According to CDC data posted Monday, the omicron variant has overtaken the delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. As of Friday, more than 73 percent of new cases in the country had been caused by the omicron variant.

Most early research suggests that the omicron variant is more contagious than previous variants. It is not yet known whether it causes milder or more severe illness.

Still, the variant already is a “significant part” of the recent surge at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said Dr. Abhijit Duggal, the vice chair of the medical center’s critical care department.

“We did not have a lot of omicron even a few weeks ago, but within the last three weeks or so, 50 percent of the patients that were tested amongst our health care facilities were omicron-positive,” Duggal said.

“It’s been nonstop, like where we have been running at more than 100 to 120 percent capacity in most ICUs and emergency rooms,” he said.

Duggal said the surge has caused “a complete regional almost shutdown in terms of not being able to move patients around because everything is full right now.”

“We are consistently seeing up to 800 Covid patients in the different hospitals in northeast Ohio amongst the Cleveland Clinic Health Care System. And 1 out of every 4 patients is in the ICU,” he said.

Ohio was one of six states that accounted for the majority of the country’s increase in hospital beds that were filled from Nov. 10 to Dec. 5, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to the flood of cases, hospitals in Ohio also are dealing with a shortage of personnel, Duggal said.

“We’ve just not had enough nurses, not had enough people to really be able to just deal with the surge of patients that you have seen,” he said.

Likewise in Rhode Island, where hospitalizations Tuesday morning were up by nearly 150 percent from four weeks ago.

Emergency departments statewide “are reporting anywhere from 25-50 percent of their nursing positions vacant” with inpatient units “equally starved for staffing,” Dr. Nadine Himelfarb, the president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, wrote in a letter to the governor last week lamenting the “chronic” worker shortage. 

“It just feels like for the past two years, you catch your breath and then the moment you start to take a look around and take an assessment, you realize you’ve lost people,” she said in an interview. “Next thing you know, a new crisis is ramping up. It’s just been too much, too often and too many waves. And I don’t mean just waves of surges of the next variant. I also mean waves of people leaving and changes in policy.”

Himelfarb said in her letter to the governor that emergency room doctors in the state have been seeing patients in chairs set up in hallways and in waiting rooms, “all in an effort to ward off our biggest collective fears, that a patient dies of treatable illness while waiting in the waiting room or leaves because of the wait time and comes back dead or dying.”

“Imagine patients dying while waiting to be seen by a doctor who is 50 feet away and, because of lack of staff and thus capacity, simply unable to treat them,” she added. “This is a true tragedy that is currently unfolding for citizens of Rhode Island.”





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