The surge in cases of the Omicron variant has not only swamped US hospitals with record numbers of patients with Covid-19, it has also caused frightening moments and major challenges for people seeking treatment for other problems.
Less-urgent procedures have been put on hold. Emergency room waits are stretching hours longer than usual.
In California, Mat Gleason said he wheeled his 92-year-old father, Eugene, into a Los Angeles-area emergency room last week for a transfusion to treat a blood disorder. It should have taken seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his dad was there for 48. He said his father called after 10 hours, asking for a blanket.
“He told me later, ‘I just assumed they forgot about me’,” Gleason, 57, told the Associated Press. “And yet he wasn’t the only person in that room. There were dozens.”
Gleason added: “I’m not begrudging the hospital at all. They did a great job.”
An average of more than 144,000 people were in hospital in the US with Covid as of Tuesday, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hospitals in states such as New York and Connecticut that experienced early Omicron surges are starting to see an easing of the load but many others are overwhelmed.
An independent project by the University of Minnesota shows Covid patients taking up an overwhelming majority of beds in some communities. In Jefferson, West Virginia; Orange, Indiana; Columbia, Pennsylvania; and Pender, North Carolina, Covid patients account for more than 70% of all hospital admissions.
Vaccines appear to be holding up well. A study released on Friday by the CDC showed the Pfizer and Moderna shots provided 94% protection against urgent care and hospital visits for people with a booster dose.
Data published on Thursday by the CDC showed unvaccinated people between 50 and 64 years old were 44 times more likely to be hospitalized compared to people fully vaccinated and with a booster dose. The figure rose to 49 times more likely to be hospitalized if the unvaccinated were older than 65.
At a White House briefing, CDC chief Rochelle Walensky said: “The data here show the protection provided by vaccines and the importance of being up to date on your Covid-19 vaccination – which, for tens of millions of Americans, means getting your booster dose.”
Hospitals say Covid patients aren’t as sick as those during the last surge, which was caused by the Delta variant. Many are being admitted for reasons other than Covid-19 and incidentally testing positive.
But Rick Pollack, chief executive and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a widespread effect on the availability of care for non-Covid problems. More people are in hospital while a high number of healthcare workers are out with Covid themselves, worsening staffing shortages that existed before the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, Pollack told the AP, about 23% of US hospitals were reporting critical staff shortages.
Many people are unable or unwilling to seek care for symptoms that do not seem like emergencies, Pollack added, saying that had led to delays in diagnosing conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure that get worse the longer they go untreated.
Dr Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer for Cook county in Chicago, said some people, particularly older patients, have been avoiding checkups and routine care out of fear of Covid. As a result, “the patients we’re seeing now are much sicker”, she said, citing cases of advanced heart failure and cancer that might have been diagnosed earlier.
Mike Bawden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in his lungs, told the AP he couldn’t get an appointment to see his doctor in Davenport, Iowa, because his coughing symptoms were too similar to those for Covid-19.
After nearly two weeks, Bawden went to a walk-in clinic, which sent him to an emergency room. He said he waited almost six hours in the overflowing ER. A scan showed clots in his lungs and he was prescribed blood thinners. If not for the surge, Bawden said, he would have had a scan earlier at a doctor’s office.
“It’s always so easy to Monday morning quarterback the ER, but everyone was really nice – even the other patients,” Bawden said. “I think it’s important for folks to realize that nobody’s the villain.”
A Genesis spokesperson said: “We are not exempt from the challenges medical centers across the United States are experiencing because of significant impact from Covid. We urge individuals to get vaccinated.”