Weeks after Covid’s new Omicron variant began to surge across the US, early-hit cities are beginning to feel its full, chaotic impact.
In Kansas, overwhelmed hospitals are turning away ambulances. In Los Angeles, hundreds of police and firefighters are out sick with the virus. In New York City, trash collection and subway services have been delayed due to staff shortages. All across the country, schools that struggled to stay open have few teachers left to teach.
“This really does, I think, remind everyone of when COVID-19 first appeared and there were such major disruptions across every part of our normal life,” Tom Cotter, director of emergency response at the non-profit Project HOPE, told the Associated Press.
So far, data have indicated that the Omicron strain causes milder illness than previous variants, especially in vaccinated people – but its transmissibility is staggering. In January 2021 – the pandemic’s previous all-time peak in the US – the country was recording an average of about 251,000 new Covid cases per day. Today that figure is more than 656,000.
That contagiousness alone is causing a crisis in American healthcare. Despite Omicron’s low proportion of severe cases, the sheer number of cases it does cause is proving enough to overwhelm hospitals. In New York, the State Department of Health has ordered 40 hospitals to stop performing non-essential surgeries.
“We will use every available tool to help ensure that hospitals can manage the COVID-19 winter surge,” Acting State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett told WABC.
In Johnson County, Kansas, some filled-up hospitals have told incoming ambulances to go elsewhere, and, with no beds left to offer, have asked emergency room patients to convalesce in waiting rooms. Meanwhile, paramedics work 80-hour weeks and wait for the Omicron wave to crash.
“What my hope is and what we’re going to cross our fingers around is that as it peaks… maybe it’ll have the same rapid fall we saw in South Africa,” Dr Steve Stites, chief medical officer at University of Kansas Hospital, told AP. “We don’t know that. That’s just hope.”
Deaths are beginning to creep up as well. Though Omicron’s mortality rate so far appears to dwarf those of previous variants, its astronomical caseload means its death toll could still be significant.
In Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), Covid was causing an average of 7 deaths per day at the beginning of December. By 8 January, that figure had risen to 31. In the same timeframe, the daily death count in New York City has shot up from 11 to 56.
Those deaths have disproportionately fallen on the unvaccinated. In New York City, the vast majority of Covid hospitalizations have been of unvaccinated patients – a pattern that has only grown more extreme during the Omicron wave, an analysis by The New York Times found.
Experts say they can’t tell whether Omicron in the US is winding down or just getting started. The only thing that’s clear is that vaccines – particularly boosters – protect people from suffering its worst effects.
“The unfortunate reality is, there’s no way of predicting what will happen next until we get our vaccination numbers – globally – up,” Mr Cotter told AP.