Over the last week, Pittsburgh hospitals have expressed tempered optimism about the COVID surge. While hospitals are treating huge influxes of patients, the daily COVID case count seems to have stabilized. Between Jan. 2 and 8, a record high 23,459 infections were recorded in Allegheny County. Between Jan 9 and 15, this number dropped slightly to 22,326. Hospital workers and public health officials are hopeful that this plateau signifies that the worst is over and that Omicron will begin to subside. While cities like Cleveland, New York, and Chicago have noticed a decline in COVID cases recently, Pittsburgh still seems to be in the midst of a massive Omicron wave.
Milder, But Not Benign
Between Omicron’s milder nature and the effect of vaccines, the latest COVID surge hasn’t translated into the same record-high hospitalizations that were seen in December 2020. This doesn’t mean that every case is mild, though, and the huge case numbers have resulted in hospitals being inundated with patients. Increased patient numbers and labor shortages have caused the hourly rate from temp agency nurses to spike from $59 an hour in 2019 to $123 an hour in December 2021, and that was before the Omicron surge in early January.
In December 2021, AHN Forbes found itself caring for 352 patients despite the hospital’s 200 beds. Many patients occupied beds in halls, not rooms. Despite the creative solutions that hospitals have found to deal with patient surges, overcrowding is likely causing fatigued medical staff to make mistakes, costing some patients their lives. According to Dr. John L. Hick, an emergency medicine professor at the University of Minnesota, as many as one in four COVID deaths might be related to overcrowded hospitals. This means that the sooner the Omicron surge ends, the better, as hospitals will be able to get back to operating at maximum effectiveness.
Complexity And Logistics
The crowding problems don’t end at the hospital doors. According to the Royersford Fire Department, EMS crews are spending 30 minutes to 2 hours waiting at hospitals before they can transfer patients inside. “There’s physically nowhere to put the patient,” said Lenny Brown, a Public Information Officer with the Royersford FD. While FEMA “strike teams” have been dispatched to alleviate the load on local workers, adding new workers to a problem isn’t an instant fix.
Still, hospitals are attempting to maximize efficiency in order to treat as many patients as possible. Creative solutions like beds in hallways help increase the maximum capacity, and with an emphasis on services like hospital cleaning Philadelphia, hospitals are getting better at getting rooms ready for new patients faster after cured ones leave. Despite the dedication and innovation of staff members, continued supply chain shortages and staff members becoming infected with COVID are complicating things for hospitals nationwide, making the Omicron surge a logistical nightmare. Hospital directors, doctors, and staff members have been working with COVID for over a year now, giving them the critical experience that they need to navigate the most recent patient surge.
Dr. Debra Bogen, the director of Allegheny County’s Health Department, used the phrase “cup-half-full” to describe her outlook on the current Omicron situation. Stabilizing case counts have given hospitals hope that we’re beginning to see the end of the Omicron wave. Hospitals have had to work hard to keep up with patient surges, but innovative solutions, federal help, and lots of work from medical professionals have allowed them to weather the storm so far. While the total number of COVID cases in Pennsylvania is higher than ever, the Omicron virus is causing far fewer fatalities than we saw from the much smaller number of cases in January 2021.
In addition to the hard work that hospitals have been putting in, Allegheny county’s 70% vaccination rate in the over-5 demographic has likely helped reduce the severity of many cases. If analysts are right and the Omicron wave is breaking, we’ll start to see a decrease in hospitalizations over the next few weeks, allowing things to get back to normal. This means we’ll see emptier hospitals and shorter wait times for patients, and our doctors and nurses will be able to relax and spend some much-needed time with their families.