(NEW YORK) — When the omicron variant first began sweeping the country, there was some hope that because initial studies indicated it was less severe, it would prove to have less of an impact on the health care system.
However, given its increased transmissibility, the unprecedented explosion of cases is proving otherwise, leaving a record 146,000 coronavirus positive patients hospitalized across the country.
The record-smashing omicron surge, right on the heels of the crushing delta surge of the summer and fall, is pushing many overtaxed hospital systems over the edge — systems facing staffing shortages, patients seeking care for non-COVID-related ailments adding to the burden. The increased pressure also comes despite having 62.6% of the country fully vaccinated and an array of treatments at their disposal.
“Even though they say omicron is probably more mild, I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing that with the unvaccinated,” Dr. Raymond Lee Kiser, a hospitalist and nephrologist at Columbus Regional Health in Indiana, told ABC News. “Here in Indiana, this sort of second wave just superimposed right on top of delta.”
Across the state, a record 3,400 COVID-19-positive patients are currently hospitalized. In mid-November, there were already more than 1,100 patients receiving care.
“There was barely time to breathe before omicron rolled right on over top of us. It really is just like a second surge right on top of the last one.”
On average, more than 18,000 virus-positive Americans are being admitted to the hospital each day, a figure which has more than doubled since early December. In addition, approximately 80% of staffed adult intensive care unit beds are occupied, with more than 23,000 Americans with COVID-19 currently requiring ICU-level care.
Health care workers interviewed by ABC News and officials say the vast majority of those who are severely ill are unvaccinated, leading hospital staff to plead for people to get their shots.
Echoing many of her colleagues in numerous health care settings, nurse Becky Bevi, at Columbus Regional Health in Indiana told ABC News she is exhausted.
“Two years later, I’m frustrated,” said Bevi, who has staffed her hospital’s main COVID-19 unit since the beginning of the pandemic. “I feel like this should have been zapped in the first year. Just frustration, tired, exhausted from constantly dealing with it, watching death. It’s just so much and I don’t feel like it’s going to go away anytime soon.”
In Wisconsin, nurse Hilary Krieger, said she often feels overwhelmed, given the constant uncertainty that surrounds the virus.
“It’s hard to explain. It’s lonely. It feels very overwhelming at times,” Krieger said.
In the emergency department at Baystate Health, in western Massachusetts, nurse Thomas Mapplebeck, told ABC News that the staff is burned out.
“We’re working 12- to 14-hour shifts on Sundays up to 16-hour shifts. Breaks are minimal and it’s just that busy, and people are just that sick. Some of us are pushing more than 60 hours a week,” Mapplebeck said.
Nationwide, nearly 30% of hospitals, for which data is available, are reporting that they are experiencing a critical staffing shortage.
Mapplebeck shared his harrowing experiences caring for coronavirus patients over the course of the last two years in the hospital’s 20-bed emergency room.
“We have patients of all age brackets with no medical history, unable to breathe, their bodies unable to compensate and overcome their symptoms. For some, we take over their breathing for them, we transport them to the trauma center where despite all efforts, they die,” Mapplebeck said. “We have 40-year-olds that are trying to walk to the bathroom and get short of breath and collapse and they need resuscitation.”
Kaila Sizemore, a nurse at Columbus Regional Health, explained that patients appear to be getting sicker, more quickly, compared to previous surges. While the disease was somewhat “more progressive” during the first wave, Sizemore said, now patients suddenly need oxygen and to be transferred to the ICU.
“It’s just how quickly and unexpectedly I think that people change has kind of been hardest for me,” she added.
At Maine’s Northern Light Health, this state’s latest surge is the “worst” the staff has ever seen.
“The numbers are crazy,” said Melissa Vail, assistant vice president of Ambulatory Care Management. “Our staff is scared. I don’t know that we have ever seen anything like this and I don’t know that we will ever see anything like it.”
Northern Light nurse Allison Leary has also been caring for a growing number of COVID-19-positive children.
“It’s challenging taking care of little people … little kids, and it’s sometimes very emotionally draining and intense,” said Leary.
Nationwide, pediatric hospital admissions have surged to a record high, with an average of 830 children admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each day.
“I’m saddened by the fact that we’re seeing more kids with it now,” Leary said.
Vast majority of those critically ill are unvaccinated
According to health officials, the vast majority of those who are critically ill in the hospitals continue to be the unvaccinated.
“The sickest of the sick that we are seeing now with the patients that are not vaccinated. COVID patients that come in and go home are the ones typically that are vaccinated. They get fluids, medications if needed, and then go home to recuperate,” said Mapplebeck, the nurse from Baystate. “This vaccine doesn’t put an invisible shield around you like a superhero. It’s meant to jumpstart your immune system. So when and if you do become sick with COVID, your body is ready to fight, which gives you a fighting chance.”
Kiser added that he has witnessed a dichotomy between those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. The course for the vaccinated patients, is much milder, he said, typically only requiring a few days of medications, and often, they are able to go home without any oxygen therapy. In addition, the patients who end up getting transferred from the medical floor to the critical care unit are “almost exclusively” unvaccinated.
“If it weren’t for that group of people … I don’t think we would feel sort of as physically and emotionally crushed as we do right now,” Kiser said.
Mapplebeck, Kiser, of Columbus Regional Health, and others stressed that people should get vaccinated in order to help decrease the number of people who need hospital beds, and give those who are really sick a chance to get the care they truly need.
“Nobody wants to go get a shot, but you know, do this. If you’re not going to do it for yourself. Do it for your community. All the hospitals are just struggling right now. All the health care providers are struggling. We’re all hurting,” pleaded Kiser.
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