As Covid-19 hospitalizations reach new highs, more states and health care systems are cutting back services and relying on National Guard members to fill gaps in staffing.
The surge from the Omicron variant, which was first detected in the US just over six weeks ago, has left frontline workers in the medical industry and others at higher risk for exposure. As health care employees need time off to isolate and recuperate, the need to treat those with Covid-19 remains.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday that hospitals will temporarily halt non-urgent procedures "so as much capacity and staff can be dedicated to emergent needs, the people who need this right now."
More than 155,900 Americans are hospitalized with Covid-19, according to data Thursday from the US Department of Health and Human Services, surpassing records set in last winter's surge. And hospitals are needing additional people to help provide care.
In Wisconsin, National Guard members will be trained as certified nursing assistants to support hospitals and nursing homes, Gov. Tony Evers said.
"We're estimating the first round of staffing and relief rollout will allow skilled nursing facilities to open up 200 or more beds by the end of February," Evers said Thursday as the state announced a record number of confirmed cases.
"Our healthcare providers are beyond exhausted. We simply do not have enough staff to care for all those who are ill," said Lisa Greenwood, the associate dean of nursing at Madison College, which is training the Guard members.
Nineteen states are reporting less than 15% remaining capacity in their intensive care units, according to HHS data Thursday: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont.
'No one is untouchable'
Before New Year's, states such as Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York called upon Guard members to assist with medical and non-medical tasks.
In Ohio, more than 2,000 Guard members have been deployed as cases keep rising. Now with hospitalizations at an all-time high, officials are urging residents to protect themselves from infection.
"In this Omicron surge, you need to remember no one is untouchable," state health department director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Thursday, asking people to only go to the hospital in the case of a real emergency as staffing shortages remain critical.
More federally deployed medical teams will head soon to six states -- Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island -- to help hospitals combat Covid-19, President Joe Biden announced Thursday.
Biden announced plans last month to mobilize 1,000 additional military medical personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals.
Assistance needed with staffing is not limited to just health care facilities. Many school districts have weighed with difficult decisions about the return to in-person learning after the holidays, and the surge has impacted educational staffing.
Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest school district in Maryland, submitted a formal inquiry for help from the National Guard to address its school bus driver shortage, district spokesperson Chris Cram told CNN on Thursday.
Earlier this week, nearly 100 of the district's school bus routes were impacted by the shortage of drivers, but that number is now down to 29 routes as of Thursday, Cram said.
Testing issues remain
While health experts are hopeful the surge may soon wane, the sheer volume of infections continues nationwide. Confirmed positive cases of Covid-19 have climbed to a daily average of 771,580 in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University data, more than three times that of last winter's peak average.
Mitigating Covid-19 transmission remains paramount, and officials are working to overcome a shortage of Covid-19 rapid tests so that those who are asymptomatic can know to quarantine.
In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that the state has ordered more than a half-million at-home antigen test kits that will be made available at no cost, and will be distributed near the end of the month through "community partners" to be named later.
"This will ensure that, as we live with Covid, the supply chain does not dictate access for Nevadans," Sisolak said Thursday.
However, not all confirmed cases via rapid test are tracked and recorded, meaning the numbers of those with Covid-19 may be much higher.
Health leaders in Oregon say the Omicron variant has become so widespread, it is outpacing their ability to keep track of how many people are infected.
"We know our daily case counts are missing many at-home test results, and in the face of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, case data is also missing many undiagnosed cases, as well," Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said in a briefing Thursday. "To be completely transparent, we are likely approaching the maximum capacity our testing system has to identify cases."
Instead of interviewing individuals for contact tracing, Allen said they will turn their focusing to tracking outbreaks in high-risk settings, asking individuals with positive test results to report those to the state voluntarily through a website and hotline.
"Hospitalizations and deaths will continue to represent our most reliable and significant metric," said Allen.
Deaths nationally have lagged from the worst of last winter's surge, as the country has averaged 1,817 Covid-19 deaths a day over the past week, JHU data shows. The peak daily average was 3,402 one year ago on January 13, 2021.
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