At the beginning of this year, American hospitals were in dire straits. Journalist Ed Yong looked into it for The Atlantic and interviewed, among others, Megan Ranney, a Rhode Island emergency physician, who revealed that because of staff shortages, “whole sections of beds” were closed. Yong traced how the COVID crisis crushed every part of the healthcare system:
A lack of pharmacists and outpatient clinicians makes it harder for people to get tests, vaccines, and even medications… There aren’t enough paramedics, making it more difficult for people to get to the hospital at all. Lab technicians are falling ill, which means that COVID-test results (and medical-test results in general) are taking longer to come back. Respiratory therapists are in short supply, making it harder to ventilate patients who need oxygen.
The scarce beds had to receive virus victims, meaning that people with other kinds of emergency health events or recurring chronic problems were out of luck. Even hospital patients who no longer needed acute care were affected, because they could not be released due to a shortage of beds in facilities for post-acute long-term care. And that made the shortage in general hospitals even worse. For people who depended on dialysis, mental health counseling, and many other outpatient services, support was hard to find.
A new demon
Thanks to the ambitions omicron coronavirus variant, there was a brief resurgence of public interest and even concern. “Do we need to wipe down packages that arrive, or simply stop ordering consumer goods from overseas? Should we wear gloves in the grocery store? They say this new COVID spreads really fast. What are we supposed to do about that?”
By the end of January, there were well over 600,000 new cases nationwide each and every day. Emergency room visits and hospital admissions were going way, way up. The patients had shorter stays, and not as many needed the ICU, but there were a whole lot more of them. And the daily death toll was described as “substantial.” While the overall proportion of ICU admissions and deaths may be smaller, that’s a ratio, a percentage of the whole. When the overall number is enormous, the number of people seriously damaged can still be huge.
But in the realm of public awareness, it did not take long for emotions to settle down. Because the omicron variant was described as milder than some of its predecessors, many people believed (or tried to believe, or at least proclaimed) that it was no big deal, a walk in the park. Many health care professionals hastened to point out the obvious: milder does not mean mild. It just means, marginally less likely to undergo gruesome ordeals like being on a ventilator, or to die.
Meanwhile, a whole separate crisis continued to build — Long COVID, which has not yet disclosed all the mysteries of its longevity or its ultimate potential for damage. But as the year began, several mentions were made in the media of the increased occurrence of myocardial infarction (heart attack) soon after the patients had seemingly recovered from COVID. The virus was clearly observed to exacerbate several chronic illnesses, leading to the patient’s demise, but was unlikely to be listed as the cause of death — even though that chronically ill patient might have lasted several more years, had COVID not interfered.
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Source: “Hospitals Are in Serious Trouble,” TheAtlantic.com, 01/07/22
Source: “Omicron’s wave is at least 386% taller than delta’s — and it’s crushing hospitals,” ArsTechnica.com, 1/26/2022
Image by Navy Medicine/Public Domain