Omicron disrupts essential services as workers call

Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr Janet Woodcock gave U.S. lawmakers an ominous warning this week: The nation must ensure police, hospitals and transportation services don’t crash. as the unprecedented wave of omicron infections across the country has people calling in sick.

“It’s hard to process what’s really going on right now, which is most people are going to get Covid,” Woodcock told the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday. “What we need to do is make sure that hospitals can still operate, that transport and other essential services are not disrupted while this is happening.”

Much like last winter, when officials were trying to contain the spread of Covid, utilities and businesses across the United States are cutting and limiting hours, with some even closing temporarily. This year, however, so many workers are sick with the virus, it’s disrupting services that officials are otherwise trying to keep open.

From New York to Los Angeles, emergency services are struggling to recruit enough police, nurses, paramedics and firefighters as more workers call in with Covid. Transit systems in New York and Chicago are suspending or halting some services, airlines are cutting flights and officials have been forced into home quarantine as the highly contagious omicron variant crosses the vaccine protection and sends large swaths of mostly unvaccinated people to hospital.

The United States on Monday reported a pandemic record of nearly 1.5 million new Covid infections with an average of about 750,000 new infections each day over the past week, according to CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That compares to a seven-day average of around 252,000 new cases per day a year ago.

Hospitalizations are also higher than last winter’s peak – before the widespread distribution of vaccines – and continue to rise. More than 152,000 people in the United States were hospitalized with Covid on Wednesday, up 18% from last week, according to data tracked by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Many places across the country are getting to the point where even their emergency personnel are getting sick,” Dr. Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said in an interview. She said the strain on frontline workers is worse now than at any other time during the pandemic. “Almost the whole country is currently feeling this wave of cases which is impacting staffing.”

Hospitals faced a shortage of nurses long before the United States first detected a case of the omicron variant in early December. In September, the American Nurses Association called on the Biden administration to declare the nursing shortage a national crisis, as the delta variant was increasing in many parts of the country at this time.

“The country’s health care delivery systems are overwhelmed and nurses are tired and frustrated as this persistent pandemic rages on with no end in sight,” ANA President Ernest Grant said at the time. “Nurses cannot solve this long-standing problem alone and it is not our burden to bear,” Grant said.

The omicron variant now threatens to worsen long-standing staffing shortages in hospitals by forcing nurses to call in sick. Although most nurses are fully vaccinated, omicron is able to evade some of the protection offered by vaccines, causing more and more breakthrough infections across the country.

According to HHS data, more than 1,000 hospitals on average across the country are currently reporting critical staffing shortages on a daily basis. However, this is likely an undercount, as many hospitals were not reporting their status on Wednesday.

“The sudden and steep increase in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, illness, absenteeism, and strain on our healthcare system,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle. Walensky, to reporters during a White House press briefing on Covid-19 on Wednesday. . To help ease potential staffing shortages, the agency last month reduced the time in isolation for some healthcare workers who contract Covid – a controversial move that has been criticized by nursing groups across the country. .

Dr. Gabe Kelen of Johns Hopkins Hospital said there were days when several hundred employees called in sick at the system’s five hospitals in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Kelen said that included everything the world, from nurses to facility staff who clean patient rooms, prepare food and store rooms.

“You can just see how incredibly hampered operations are at a time when institutions like ours need to augment their staff,” said Kelen, who chairs the department of emergency medicine at Hopkins and heads its office of preparedness and intervention.

“Given how overstretched the health services are right now, losing nurses for even a five-day period if they had a mild infection is just a huge loss,” Kelen said.

The Biden administration has deployed hundreds of military doctors and nurses to support overwhelmed hospitals and ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide emergency hospital beds and deploy ambulances and teams EMS to transport patients.

Police, fire and transit departments are also struggling to recruit staff, as omicron forces people to call in sick. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said more than 800 police and firefighters were isolating at home due to positive Covid test results since last Thursday.

“It’s an incredibly difficult time. The omicron variant has taken off like wildfire,” Garcetti said at a press conference.

In New York, 18% of EMS personnel and 13% of firefighters fell ill with Covid on Tuesday, compared to 30% for EMS and 18% for firefighters a few days earlier, according to the FDNY. The New York Police Department told CNBC on Tuesday that 12.5% ​​of the force was sick as of Friday.

New York’s subway system, the largest in the country, has also service suspended on some lines due to staff shortages caused by omicron. The Chicago Transit Authority, which operates the nation’s second-largest transit system, also tell the audience there may be service disruptions as workers call in sick due to Covid.

The virus is also infecting top city and state officials. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday that she tested positive for covid and will work from home while she self-isolates with cold symptoms. Lightfoot said she was fully vaccinated and strengthened. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced early Wednesday that he also tested positive, although he is also fully vaccinated and backed up.

Airlines began canceling flights just before Christmas because omicron infections among staff left them shorthanded. United, JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines, SkyWest and others have cut January schedules as Covid cases surge, leaving them without the pilots and other staff they need.

United’s CEO told staff on Monday that 3,000 workers, or about 4% of its US workforce, tested positive for Covid.

“Just as an example, in a single day in Newark [New Jersey], almost a third of our workforce have called in sick,” Scott Kirby said in a staff memo.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday that it was unclear when the omicron wave would peak due to the variation in vaccine coverage. in the USA. at the others.

“It’s a very tricky virus,” Fauci told lawmakers during the hearing. “It’s been fooling everyone all the time – from when it first happened in delta until now omicron – it’s very unpredictable and we’re doing our best.”

CNBC’s Leslie Josephs and Nate Rattner contributed to this report

Michelle J. Kelley