Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.
This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients – two-thirds in some places – are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.
At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren't as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren't as full, and ventilators aren't needed as much as they were before.
The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.
“This is getting very tiring, and I'm being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.
About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.
But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren't what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.
Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.
At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.
Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.
The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.
CDC: Extra Pfizer shot for 12 to 15
The U.S. is urging that everyone 12 and older get a COVID-19 booster as soon as they're eligible, to help fight back the hugely contagious omicron mutant that's ripping through the country.
Boosters already were encouraged for all Americans 16 and older, but Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed an extra Pfizer shot for younger teens – those 12 to 15 – and strengthened its recommendation that 16- and 17-year-olds get it, too.
Grammy Awards get postponed
The Grammy Awards were postponed Wednesday weeks before the planned Los Angeles ceremony over what organizers called “too many risks” from the omicron variant, signaling what could be the start of another year of pandemic upheaval for awards season. No new date is on the books for the Jan. 31 event.
Chicago cancels classes again
Chicago school leaders canceled classes Thursday for a second consecutive day after failing to reach agreement with the teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols in the nation's third-largest school district.
The Chicago Teachers Union sought to revert to remote instruction during the latest surge of infections while both sides hammer out a deal. But Chicago Public Schools leaders have said remote learning didn't work and schools can safely remain open with protocols.
Dogs to sniff out COVID at schools
Two dogs trained to detect an odor distinct to people who are sick with COVID-19 will visit three school districts near Boston this week.
A black Labrador named Huntah and a golden Lab called Duke can detect the smell of the virus on surfaces and will sit to indicate when they pick up the scent.