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Hospitals are still reeling from delta as omicron cases start to multiply

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There is no doubt the omicron variant of the coronavirus is already spreading at breathtaking speed. Elsewhere in the program today, the director of the National Institutes of Health warns the U.S. could soon see a million infections a day. Just how serious would that be for the health care system? NPR's Will Stone talked with hospitals all across the country to find out what they're expecting.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: America's hospitals know how to prepare for the worst, but it's hard to make room on the boat when you're already taking on water. That's where many hospitals find themselves right now in a winter surge precipitated not by omicron but delta.

STANLEY MARTIN: I do feel like we are potentially looking at a perfect storm.

STONE: Dr. Stanley Martin with Geisinger, one of Pennsylvania's largest hospital systems.

MARTIN: All of our hospitals are essentially operating at over 100% capacity.

STONE: COVID hospital admissions are climbing quickly nationwide. Those patients account for about 1 in every 5 ICU beds. It's especially bad in the Midwest, Northeast and Southwest. In Minnesota, hospital CEOs recently took out an ad. It said getting medical care, not for COVID, but any emergency is in jeopardy. John Hick is an ER doctor at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis.

JOHN HICK: In 25 years, we've never seen these kind of sustained volumes. I mean, half my department's usually waiting for an inpatient bed that doesn't exist.

STONE: Hick is an expert on hospital response to medical disasters. He says Minnesota and states in the same situation don't have many options left if cases keep climbing.

HICK: It's a pretty bare-looking cupboard. For the next few months, it's going to be kind of, you know, gutting it out in the trenches here I think.

STONE: This is the reality as omicron hits the U.S. Hospitals are depleted, staffing shortages are acute, worse than ever in many places. Dr. Amy Compton Phillips is with Providence, which has hospitals up and down the West Coast. She says COVID isn't as bad for them as last winter, and yet...

AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS: We are absolutely bursting at the seams.

STONE: The pandemic has profoundly disrupted care. People are showing up sicker, coming in for delayed procedures. Compton-Phillips says one-fifth of their patients are ready to be discharged from the hospital but can't be, partly because nursing homes and long-term care facilities don't have room for them.

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: We're doing a lot very, very rapidly to make sure that we have capacity when the next wave comes, but none of it's easy.

STONE: The omicron surge hasn't hit South Africa's hospitals as hard as previous variants. Many people there may have been protected by previous COVID infections and vaccination. Europe could be a different story. Hospitalizations are starting to rise, and worries about capacity are mounting. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at UC Santa Cruz, says omicron is doubling every few days, and hospitalizations usually lag by several weeks.

MARM KILPATRICK: If we wait for signals in increasing hospitalizations, we're probably too late by a substantial amount.

STONE: It's not yet clear if omicron causes less severe disease. Kilpatrick is skeptical that's the case and says the U.S. should by no means count on this.

KILPATRICK: Regardless of whether the severity ends up being a little bit different than the delta variant, that difference, if there is any, will be overwhelmed by the number of cases that we're likely to see.

STONE: That's because omicron is highly transmissible. It reinfects people and breaks through vaccination at higher rates than delta. Boosters can help, particularly with severe disease, but many in the U.S. haven't had one. So what can be done to prepare? Dr. Eric Toner at Johns Hopkins says at this point...

ERIC TONER: I think the government is sending whatever resources it can, but what it has is limited. There's no magic bullet.

STONE: Toner says one of the best things would be to plan now for how we choose who gets care and who doesn't. Hospitals in states have these plans, some have used them in the past. Dr. Dan Roth of Trinity Health, one of the largest hospital chains in the U.S., says they have the supplies they need. But unlike last year, people are the challenge this time around.

DAN ROTH: We can open up a new unit, we can open up a field hospital, we wouldn't be able to staff it as easily.

STONE: Roth says the best preparation is to ask the public to take precautions, get vaccinated and hope the worst-case scenario doesn't actually come to pass. Will Stone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
Will Stone