Roger Strukhoff was being treated for intestinal bleeding at a hospital outside Chicago this month when he suffered a mild heart attack.
Normally, the 67-year-old would have been sent to the intensive care unit. But Strukhoff said it was overrun with COVID-19 patients, and the staff instead had to wheel a heart monitor into his room and quickly administer nitroglycerin and morphine.
“A doctor I know pretty well said, 'Roger, we're going to have to improvise right here,'” said Strukhoff, who lives in DeKalb, Illinois.
The omicron surge this winter has not only swamped U.S. hospitals with record numbers of patients with COVID-19, it has also caused frightening moments and major headaches for people trying to get treatment for other ailments.
Less-urgent procedures have been put on hold around the country, such as cochlear implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medical complaints have had to wait in emergency rooms for hours longer than usual.
Mat Gleason said he wheeled his 92-year-old father, Eugene Gleason, into a Los Angeles-area emergency room last week for a transfusion to treat a blood disorder. It should have taken about seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his dad was there for 48 hours.
He said his father called him after 10 hours, asking for a blanket.
“He told me later, 'I just assumed they forgot about me,'” said Gleason, 57, who works as an art critic. “And yet he wasn't the only person in that room. There were dozens of people.” But Gleason added: “I'm not begrudging the hospital at all. They did a great job.”
An average of almost 144,000 people were in the hospital in the U.S. with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in a few states such as New York and Connecticut that experienced early omicron surges are starting to see an easing of the patient load, but many other places are overwhelmed.
Hospitals say the COVID-19 patients aren't as sick as those during the last surge. And many of them are being admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 and only incidentally testing positive for the virus.
Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a widespread effect on the availability of care for people who have non-COVID-19 health problems. He said a number of factors are at play: More people are in the hospital, and a high number of health care workers are out with COVID-19, worsening staffing shortages that existed well before the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, roughly 23% of hospitals nationwide were reporting critical staff shortages, Pollack said.
Many people are also unable or unwilling to seek care for symptoms that do not seem like emergencies, he said. Pollack said that has 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 Health in Chicago, said some people, particularly older patients, have been avoiding checkups and other routine care during the pandemic out of fear of COVID-19.
And 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.