The spread of the omicron variant is causing widespread disruption across the U.S. as hospitalizations reach a level not seen since the 2020-21 holiday surge.
More than 141,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, nearing the record of 142,246 hospitalizations on Jan. 14, 2021.
The burden is straining health care networks as hospitals juggle staffing issues caused by the increased demand coupled with employees, who are at a higher risk of infection, having to isolate and recover after testing positive.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a limited state of emergency Monday as the number of ICU hospitalizations more than doubled since Dec. 1. The order allows hospitals to expand bed capacity and give more flexibility in staffing, he said, adding that it also expands the use of telehealth as well as which medical professionals can give vaccines.
In Texas, at least 2,700 medical staffers are being hired, trained and deployed to assist with the surge, joining more than 1,300 personnel already sent across the state, the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a statement to CNN.
Kentucky has mobilized the National Guard to provide support, with 445 members sent to 30 health care facilities, the state announced.
"Omicron continues to burn through the commonwealth, growing at levels we have never seen before. Omicron is significantly more contagious than even the delta variant," said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, noting the earlier variant that spurred a surge of cases in the summer and fall months.
"If it spreads at the rate we are seeing, it is certainly going to fill up our hospitals," he said, and Kentucky is "down to 134 adult ICU beds available."
In Kansas, the University of Kansas Health System, which announced a record number of COVID-19 patients, is "shifting staff from areas that can support the supportive functions of direct patient care," UKHS chief operating officer Chris Ruder said. "So that may be running a lab, it may be a simple patient transport. Those types of things we can use other individuals to help with."
Mitigation measures such as mandatory masking are also being revived in some areas.
Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a universal indoor mask mandate Monday due to the increase in hospitalizations, with some hospitals "over 100% inpatient bed capacity amid crippling staffing shortages," he said in a statement. Churches and places of worship are exempt from the mandate, while businesses should provide masks to customers and have signage about indoor mask requirements.
"I know we're all exhausted by this pandemic. But at the level of hospitalizations we're seeing, Delawareans who need emergency care might not be able to get it. That's just a fact. It's time for everyone to pitch in and do what works. Wear your mask indoors. Avoid gatherings or expect to get and spread COVID. Get your vaccine and, if eligible, get boosted. That's how we'll get through this surge without endangering more lives," Carney said.
Schools face omicron issues
The debate over safety in schools from COVID-19 continues to play out as only about one in six children ages 5 to 11 is fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Los Angeles prepared to return to school on Tuesday, approximately 62,000 students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 and will have to stay home, data from the Los Angeles Unified School District showed Monday, equating to a 14.99% positivity rate. The positivity rate of Los Angeles County at large, by comparison, has spiked to 22%.
In Chicago, educators will return to school Tuesday and students are slated for in-person learning Wednesday following a nearly week-long dispute. The Chicago Teachers Union had voted to teach remotely last week, and the school district responded by canceling classes for four days.
The agreement, announced late Monday, included metrics for when a classroom would need to go remote due to COVID-19 levels.
In areas where schools have returned to in-person learning after the holiday break, the time needed for those with COVID-19 to recover has impacted some essential services.
A Greensboro, North Carolina school district suspended school bus transportation for eight of its high schools beginning Monday due to the "severe bus driver shortage made worse by rising COVID-19 cases," according to a statement from Guilford County Schools.
"As of this weekend, we don't have enough bus drivers to continue serving all students, so we had to make some really difficult choices," said GCS chief operations officer Michelle Reed.
To offset the strain on parents and guardians, the district has developed a partnership "that will allow high school students to ride city buses for free," according to the GCS statement.
Other industries continue to be hit
Not only has the strain of the omicron surge taken its toll on health care workers and educators, but other sectors also are struggling due to the high infection rate.
Some municipalities have seen nearly a quarter of their trash collection workforce call in sick in recent weeks due to COVID-19, leading to delays, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America.
"This coincided, unfortunately, with increased trash and recycling volumes associated with the holidays. However, we hope that as volumes decline and sanitation workers return to work, these delays will prove temporary," executive director and CEO David Biderman said in a statement Monday.
In travel, U.S. airlines canceled thousands of additional flights over the weekend due to COVID-19 callouts and winter storms, and cruise line Royal Caribbean International announced it has canceled voyages on four ships because of "ongoing Covid-related circumstances around the world." Last week, Norwegian Cruise Line canceled the voyages of eight ships.
Public transit systems in major metropolitan areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C., have had to scale back service with employees ill from COVID-19.
In Detroit, 20-25% of SMART bus service is canceled or delayed, the agency said in a statement Saturday.
And Portland, Oregon's buses are "facing the most significant operator shortfall in agency history" and reduced bus service by 9% beginning Sunday, the agency said.