The U.S. kicked off 2022 amid a massive COVID-19 case spike -- driven by the highly contagious omicron variant -- that some experts warn will be different than any other time in the pandemic.
"What we have to understand is that our health system is at a very different place than we were in previous surges," professor of emergency medicine Dr. Esther Choo told CNN on Saturday. "We have extremely high numbers of just lost health care workers, we've lost at least 20% of our health care workforce, probably more."
"This strain is so infectious," Choo added, "that I think all of us know many, many colleagues who are currently infected or have symptoms and are under quarantine."
The high number of health care staff out with the virus will also have an impact on Americans' doctors appointments and could make for dangerous circumstances when people are hospitalized with COVID-19, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor University's National School of Tropical Medicine, said Friday.
"That's a different type of one-two punch: people going into the hospitals ... and all of the health care workers are out of the workforce," he told CNN.
But the latest variant isn't just shrinking health care staff numbers. As the virus spreads like wildfire across American communities, staffing problems are already altering parts of daily life.
Plagued with staffing issues, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced last week several subway lines were suspended.
In Ohio, the mayor of Cincinnati declared a state of emergency due to staffing shortages in the city's fire department following a rise in COVID-19 infections, saying in the declaration that if the problem goes unaddressed, it would "substantially undermine" first responders' readiness levels.
And in the middle of a busy holiday season, thousands of flights have been canceled or delayed as staff and crew call out sick.
"We're seeing a surge in patients again, unprecedented in this pandemic," Dr. James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital, warned on Saturday. "What's coming for the rest of the country could be very serious and they need to be prepared."
Vast majority of patients still the unvaccinated, expert says
Health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic say that unvaccinated Americans continue to drive COVID-19 hospitalizations in the latest surge, much like the summer surge, when the delta variant was ravaging parts of the country.
Despite a year of calls from public health experts to get vaccinated -- and now boosted -- only about 62% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And about 33.4% of those who are fully vaccinated have received their booster doses, the data shows.
"If you're unvaccinated, that's the group still at highest risk," Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN Saturday. "The adults that are being admitted to my institution, the vast majority continue to be unvaccinated."
Dr. Catherine O'Neal, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said their facility has seen hospital admissions and emergency department visits triple in the past week.
"What we're seeing is that... our vaccinated patients aren't getting sick and our frail, multiple co-morbidities vaccinated patients do need admission, but their admissions are shorter and they're able to leave the hospital after several days," O'Neal said. "Our unvaccinated patients are the sickest patients, they're the patients most likely to be on the ventilator."
The hospital is stretched so thin by the surging numbers, they're concerned they may not be able to "take care of patients the way we want to take care of them by tomorrow," O'Neal added.
"We're running out of tests, we're running out of room, we're inundated in the ER," she added.
Child hospitalizations on the rise
Child hospitalizations have also jumped, with some hospitals reporting some of the highest numbers they've seen since the pandemic's start.
An average of 378 children were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 on any given day over the week that ended Dec. 28, according to data published last week from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
That's more than a 66% jump from the previous week -- and breaks the country's previous record of an average of 342 children admitted to hospitals daily, that was seen at the end of August and early September.
The virus is not specifically targeting children this time, Hotez told CNN on Saturday, but because more virus is now circulating in communities, it's more likely that more children will get infected as well.
And those pediatric numbers are about to get worse as schools reopen, Hotez added, especially in areas of high transmission.
"It may be the case that in some school districts, where things are so raging right now in terms of omicron for the next couple of weeks, and it may be prudent to delay things a couple more weeks," Hotez said. "It's going to be a very challenging time, people are going to have to be patient."