Health

Omicron surge pushes US COVID hospitalisations toward record high

Hospitalisations have increased steadily since late December
as omicron quickly overtook delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the
United States, although experts say omicron will likely prove less deadly than
prior iterations.

Health officials have nevertheless warned that the sheer
number of infections caused by omicron was placing a strain on hospitals, some
of which are struggling to keep up with the influx of patients because their
own workers are out sick.

“It’s sort of like medical throughput gridlock,”
Dr Peter Dillon, the chief clinical officer at Penn State Health in Pennsylvania,
said in an interview. “There (are) so many forces now contributing to the
challenges and I think there’s an element, I don’t want to say despair, but of
fatigue.”

The United States reported 662,000 new COVID-19 cases on
Thursday, the fourth highest daily US total, just three days after a record of
nearly 1 million cases was hit, according to the Reuters tally.

US COVID hospitalisations approached 123,000, appearing
poised to top the record above 132,000, according to the tally. Deaths, a
lagging indicator, remain fairly steady at about 1,400 a day, well below last
year’s peak.

Hospitalisation data, however, often do not differentiate
between people admitted for COVID-19 and so-called incidental cases involving
people who were admitted for other reasons and were found to be infected during
routine testing.

In New York 42% of patients hospitalised with COVID-19 were
in the incidental category, Governor Kathy Hochul told a briefing on Friday, a
sign of how the data may not be giving the clearest picture of omicron’s impact
in terms of severe disease.

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While hospitalisations continue to rise in New York, Hochul
and other state officials expressed optimism that the worst of the omicron wave
could pass in the coming days.

“We need a couple more days to be able to tell that it
has peaked,” said Dr Mary Bassett, New York’s acting Health Commissioner.
“I think that we can expect a difficult January but that things should be
much better by February.”

STAFF EXHAUSTION

Rising cases have forced hospital systems in nearly half of
US states to postpone elective surgeries, a reflection of the strain on the
healthcare sector, which lost about 3,100 workers according to Friday’s US
monthly employment report.

Some doctors and nurses expressed frustration at the surge
among unvaccinated patients, saying they could not understand why someone would
ignore a doctor’s advice to get vaccinated but then seek a medical
professional’s help once sick with COVID-19.

“A lot of this is unnecessary death,” said Lynne
Kokoczka, a clinical nurse specialist in an intensive care unit at the
Cleveland Clinic in Ohio shortly after she helped remove a dead COVID-19
patient from the ward.

Ninety percent of the patients in intensive care on
mechanical ventilation at the Cleveland Clinic are unvaccinated, said Dr Hassan
Khouli, chairman for the department of critical care medicine at the academic
medical centre.

“This is really taking a toll on our teams,”
Khouli said. “Burnout is a major concern.”

While many school systems have vowed to continue in-person
instruction, some have faced closures as cases rise. In Chicago – the
third-largest US public school system – schools were closed for a third day on
Friday amid a teacher walkout over COVID-19 protections.

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Officials continue to press vaccinations as the best
protection against serious illness, although federal mandates requiring them
have become politically contentious.

In a closely watched legal test of mandates, conservative US
Supreme Court justices on Friday questioned President Joe Biden’s
vaccine-or-testing requirement for large businesses but appeared more receptive
to a mandate for healthcare facilities at a time of surging COVID-19
infections.

US staff of Citigroup Inc who have not been vaccinated
against COVID-19 by Jan 14 will be placed on unpaid leave and fired at the end
of the month unless they are granted a vaccine exemption, a source told Reuters
on Friday.

Hochul said New York would become the first state to mandate
a booster shot for healthcare workers, pending approval from a state health
planning council. She said the booster was needed to keep nurses healthy and
able to work.

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