Hospitals on Life Support

With U.S. hospitalizations now surpassing last winter’s peak, here’s a look at what the data is telling us about the severity of the Omicron wave:

  • Hospitalizations can be a more instructive metric than case numbers. One of the primary concerns throughout the pandemic has been overwhelming hospitals. With previous variants, hospitalizations followed infection numbers along a predictable curve. Omicron is trending differently—which makes tracking case numbers less useful for predicting hospital overwhelm. 
  • So what does the data say? Hospitalizations have increased more than 50% in the last two weeks, but at a much lower rate than case numbers. At the same time, the U.S. is on track to triple its previous case record. As NYU epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder explains it, “Let’s say you’re getting twice as many infections and it’s half as deadly, well, twice as many but half as deadly means the same exact number of deaths.” Although it’s worth noting that data does not always distinguish between patients hospitalized because of COVID and those who test positive for COVID after being admitted for other ailments.  
  • Hospitals are severely overwhelmed. Due to Omicron’s lightning-fast spread and the fact that more than a third of Americans are still not fully vaccinated, hospital systems in nearly 25 states have begun postponing elective surgeries. Despite the name, elective surgeries are not always optional and instead often refer to lifesaving treatment for serious illnesses. 
  • Got COVID? Come to work anyway. Hospitals were already facing huge shortages of health care workers before the Omicron surge, and now they’re hemorrhaging staff who are themselves suffering breakthrough infections. COVID-positive workers are being asked to return to work if they have no or mild symptoms in order to compensate for critical staffing shortages. 
  • And it’s not just hospitals. Employee shortages are disrupting basic public services everywhere—trash pickup and subway delays in New York City, bus schedule reductions in the District, police and fire personnel shortages in Los Angeles, security checkpoint closures in Phoenix and teacher absences from Connecticut to Hawaii. Not to mention anticipated tax refund delays.