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Prepping for the omicron wave

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Let's stay with the pandemic and this record number of new cases. While there is evidence that many of the new infections are milder - meaning people won't need to go to the hospital - in some places, hospitalizations are surging.

We've got three reporters with us now with a snapshot of the situation in hospitals across the country - NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago, Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR in Boston and Blake Farmer with WPLN who, today at least, is in Fort Worth. Hey there to everybody.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hey.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Martha, I'm going to let you start because I have been looking at the graphs of COVID cases in a lot of Northeastern states. They are, like, straight up vertical lines these last couple of weeks. How are hospital staff coping? How are they interpreting those numbers where you are?

BEBINGER: Yeah, Mary Louise. The warning from the Boston area is that we are headed into a long dark tunnel for at least the next few weeks because doctors say that even if omicron is less severe - as we've just been hearing this afternoon - than some of the other variants, it's still infecting so many more people that the number who may need hospital care could be bigger or - you know, now are bigger than prior surges. And this surge comes at a time when there are fewer beds because of a staffing shortage. And those beds have been filling up with patients who put off care earlier in the pandemic.

So against that backdrop, we now have emergency rooms reporting near-record demand for care. We're seeing smaller hospitals put patients who need specialized care on helicopters and sending them out of Massachusetts to hospitals in neighboring states. And the models show Massachusetts is probably still several weeks from the peak of this surge.

KELLY: If the peak is yet to come, what are hospitals there doing to get ready?

BEBINGER: Well, they are supposed to close non-urgent surgery, anything that requires an overnight stay. They are moving patients from one facility to another to try to even the load. Some are asking patients to stay home, that - you know, we'll send doctors and nurses to your bedrooms to deliver the care you need.

Hospitals are not officially rationing care, Mary Louise, but this is apparently happening by default. So what I'm hearing is if a patient who needs an advanced heart procedure, for example, arrives at a community hospital instead of one of the big teaching hospitals, there's a good chance the patient will get stuck waiting for some kind of surgery or treatment that that smaller hospital doesn't offer.

Here's Dr. Eric Dickson. He's the board chair for the state's hospital association.

ERIC DICKSON: Some patients will potentially die when they could have been cared for or potentially saved at a tertiary care facility.

BEBINGER: We are starting to hear stories of patients who've died while waiting for a transfer.

KELLY: Cheryl Corley, you're in Chicago. And I guess in the Midwest, generally, it looks like case counts are not rising as fast as what we were just hearing from the Northeast. But hospitalizations there are tracking a lot more closely with case count. So what does that mean? Does that mean people in the Midwest who get infected are more likely to end up in the hospital?

CORLEY: Well, that seems to be the case, at least for now. And there are several places in the Midwest where hospital capacity is just extremely tight because of the surge in COVID-19 cases. At least five states have been particularly hard hit - Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The CDC says most of the increases in those states are due to the omicron variant. And now, many of the hospitals in those states are operating under what we call extreme stress. That's where 20% or more of their hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Now, Ohio is a prime example. It set a record yesterday with more than 5,300 people hospitalized with COVID-19. That's the most since last winter's surge. And Ohio Governor Mike DeWine says they must really work hard at getting those numbers down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DEWINE: What we're seeing in our hospitals are hospitals filling up - our emergency rooms - is being driven by people in Ohio who are not vaccinated. And the numbers clearly, clearly show that.

CORLEY: And DeWine says that's why he's pushing the power of the vaccine to keep people out of the hospital.

And in Minnesota, where hospitals have been operating at or near capacity for months, health care executives there took out a full-page newspaper ad just really pleading for people to get vaccinated. They said they're heartbroken. They're overwhelmed; that the surge of COVID-19 cases there has just really threatened access to care for others so there have been patients who've had avoidable illnesses or patients who have died as a result

KELLY: Yeah. Blake, let's go south to you in Texas, which, like a lot of Southern states, just got walloped by the delta variant. How's the situation now?

FARMER: Well, COVID hospitalizations are moving up again and rather quickly. Here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, some hospitals have seen a doubling of COVID patients since Christmas Day. Kentucky is already beyond 90% of its ICU beds in use. And the intensive care units are where the real pinch is when COVID is surging like this.

Pediatric hospitalizations have also shot up just in the last few days for several states. I talked to Dr. Ritu Banerjee at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville today just after doing her rounds.

RITU BANERJEE: Unfortunately, we had a child die this morning. The majority of children do fine, but it's just not a completely benign disease.

FARMER: A sobering moment, she said, even for the staff of a very busy hospital. For most of the South, capacity strains are nowhere near where they were in late summer, but folks are holding their breath, especially since this region remains less vaccinated than most of the country.

KELLY: Yeah. So fears that the worst may be yet to come. Did the South learn lessons that they are applying now from that delta variant surge?

FARMER: Well, for one, we're only now just learning how hard the late summer, early fall surge was on hospitals. You know, at the time, it looked like hospitals were finding a way to meet the demand, caring for more COVID patients than they even thought possible. But public health officials are finding that there were thousands of COVID deaths that went unreported at the time just because medical examiners were so overwhelmed. Many were just dying at home. There's even pretty clear indication that Southerners died from other causes who otherwise could have been saved, likely because hospitals were so focused on COVID. And that collateral damage is primarily blamed on short staffing at hospitals.

KELLY: Which is probably something that resonates to everybody listening here and no matter what part of the country you're in. Cheryl, do you want to take that on, just this - exhausted health care workers quitting, taking other jobs? How are hospitals where you are handling that?

CORLEY: Well, you know, it really depends on the size of the hospital or the system. In Illinois, for example, one of the larger hospital systems says it has the flexibility to move resources around, including staff. Some hospitals are just postponing elective surgeries or transferring patients to other facilities if possible. And in some states like Ohio and Indiana, the National Guard has been sent in to support hospital staff. So those are some of the things that we're seeing throughout the Midwest and throughout the country.

KELLY: NPR's Cheryl Corley, WPLN's Blake Farmer and WBUR's Martha Bebinger, thanks to all three of you.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

FARMER: You're welcome.

BEBINGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. SCRUFF'S "MIDNIGHT FEAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.