‘Our hospitals and health care systems are under tremendous pressure’ as omicron rages

This is where we are, at the end of the first week of January 2022: It’s not just that the number of patients is skyrocketing, it’s that nurses, doctors, and other health care workers are also out sick.

  • Omicron is adding patients to the system more rapidly than in any past surge. It’s not just more people, it’s more people, more quickly.
  • More health care workers are falling ill than in past waves. After two years of pandemics, hospitals and health care staff are already operating at the ragged edge. There have already been retirements, and thousands of health care workers have simply died. Now they’re sick, just as the system is being flooded.
  • The omicron wave is hitting nationwide. This isn’t a crisis that’s primarily focused in one region. It’s everyone, everywhere, all at once. So unlike past waves, it’s not possible to shift people from area to area to address immediate needs.

The biggest problem the nation faces right now isn’t a shortage of tests, it’s a shortage of health care.


Arizona healthcare workers are imploring hospital leaders and elected officials to do more to stop the spread of COVID-19. “We are in a crisis. The hospital systems will collapse,” said Dr. Ruth Franks Snedecor, with the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix.

WTOP, Washington, D.C.:

“We are seeing unprecedented levels of admissions from COVID, or with COVID, than we have ever seen before,” said Dr. Jordan Asher, chief physician executive at Sentara Healthcare. “This is effectively our fourth peak, and it is our highest peak. And it is a peak that is continuing to increase every day at greater rates than we have seen before.”

WGME, Maine:

Maine is seeing a surge in the number of healthcare workers who are calling out due to COVID-19. On Wednesday alone, more than 1,300 hospital workers were not able to come in to work. Of those 1,300, 842 workers with MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, were absent due to COVID-19. Another 493 Northern Light Health employees were out because they tested positive or were in quarantine waiting for results.

WKOW, Wisconsin:

“The good news today is that we have helped recruit nearly 600 temporary staff to provide critical care during the current COVID-19 surge. But I also want to be clear: our hospitals and health care systems are still under tremendous pressure, and they need every Wisconsinite to do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Governor Tony Evers said in the release.

Mississippi Free Press:

“During this whole time, we’re overwhelmed. We’re getting flooded with COVID patients. The waiting room is backing up,” he shared with this reporter. He stopped counting somewhere after 20 calls, took a deep breath and exhaled. Jon Boyles was 10 hours into a 12-hour shift, and his patient had nowhere to go.

As The Atlantic reported on Friday, omicron may be milder than delta on an individual level, but it’s high level of transmission means that it’s anything but mild when it comes to the health care system. “When a health care system crumbles,” writes science correspondent Ed Yong, “this is what it looks like.”

Emergency rooms fill. Waiting times get longer. Surgeries get postponed. Tests get overlooked. And in time, health care delayed becomes healthcare denied. 

Eventually, people who would have lived will die. This is not conjecture; it is happening now, across the United States. “It’s not a dramatic Armageddon; it happens inch by inch,” Anand Swaminathan, an emergency physician in New Jersey, told me.

That email from BJC Healthcare in St. Louis includes this plea: “If you’re not yet vaccinated, it’s not too late. The vaccine remains the best way you can combat this virus and keep yourself and your loved ones safe, well and out of the hospital.”

To that, please add a mask. A good one. An N95 or KN95 mask. Wear it, even in the briefest of encounters.  

There will again be time for a wonderful, relaxing meal at your favorite restaurant. There will again be the opportunity to make that trip you’ve always dreamed about. But this isn’t that time.

On Friday, The New York Times reported on projections about where the omicron wave is going. That model first projects what already seems obvious:  January 2022 will see more cases of COVID-19 than any other month of the pandemic. Whether the rapid rise in cases is really followed by the rapid fall that some have predicted is still up in the air. It depends on us, and what we do now.

Eventually, this surge will be over. When it’s over, it may really be the time to think about doing all those things you’ve put on hold. But to get that time, first you have to live. You have to survive the crisis happening right now.

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