For the second year in a row, weary doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic are preparing to treat hospitalized Covid-19 patients over the Christmas holiday as the highly transmissible Omicron variant drives up case counts across the United States.
“It’s clinically, psychologically impossible to do this year in and year out,” Scotty Silva, respiratory care director at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, told CNN. “Even the strongest respiratory therapists that I have (have) broken down at times.”
In Omaha, Nebraska, the staff is “very worried about what’s to come after the holidays” and is urging people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others against severe illness, Covid-19 ICU nurse Haleigh Seizys at Nebraska Medical Center said Wednesday.
“Day to day, things are tough,” Seizys told CNN’s Ana Cabrera. “I have a patient who is not doing well. It takes a lot of time and effort from several different people to try and help these patients improve.
“I truly am exhausted,” she said, although she remains motivated to “help whoever I can.”
More than 70,000 Americans were hospitalized Thursday with Covid-19, according to Department of Health and Human Services data, up from around 45,000 in early November.
The US averaged 1,303 Covid-19 deaths a day over the last week, 14% higher than a month prior, according to Johns Hopkins data.
Early evidence shows that increased antibody levels developed through new vaccinations or booster doses can help protect people against a potentially more transmissible Omicron. Researchers are still working to learn if there is a lowered chance of severe disease with Omicron than with Delta or earlier variants.
Earlier hopes have been crushed
Clinical nurse manager Dominick Armijo was filled with hope when vaccines were approved, he said. He was the first person in New Mexico to get the shot.
“We thought the cases were going down with the vaccination,” he told CNN. “Then all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Wham-bam, here we go again.’”
He couldn’t have accounted for the number of people who refused the vaccine and then filled up his ICU, he said – people like Angela Byers.
“I was an anti-vaxxer but not anymore,” she told CNN. “This is hard, this is really hard. This has knocked me for a loop.
“I wish I had gotten vaccinated sooner. I wouldn’t be here. That’s the regret.”
People who oppose mask mandates, including elected leaders, should see what health care workers have to face daily, said Seizys, whose coworkers are trying to “rally around each other” in the face of rising hospitalizations.
“I genuinely wish that they could come and follow me for just an hour so they could see how much their feet hurt and see how many people are trying to hold back tears day to day, and they can see the trauma these patients are going through,” she said. “These people are dying very traumatic deaths, and it’s so hard to watch.”
Because both the Delta and Omicron variants are circulating widely in the US, it is difficult to tell which is making people sicker. More research is needed on the characteristics of hospitalizations, including length of stay, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner who is now a board member at Pfizer.
“We need to watch that very closely,” he told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that it’s not clear whether the uptick is due to Delta or if “it’s an early indicator of rising Omicron infections winding up in the hospital.”
The first US death from Omicron was reported in Texas, as an unvaccinated man in his 50s who previously had Covid-19 succumbed to a new infection. And cases in many parts of the country continue to rise as the variant has been detected in all 50 states.
New York state eclipsed its previous daily case record five times in less than a week, officials reported Wednesday. While the hospitalization rate is “creeping up,” the state’s rate is still only two-thirds of what it was in December last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul noted.
“We’re not panicking,” she said. “We have the resources we need.”
New vaccine and booster mandates
On the heels of Washington, DC, hitting another record high for cases, proof of vaccination will be required in the city for those over the age of 12 to enter restaurants, gyms and other gathering places, Mayor Muriel Bowser said.
“The vaccines are working, and they’re working well to keep people out of the hospital and to keep people from dying from Covid-19. So, we don’t need those type of shutdowns, but we do need more people to get vaccinated and boosted,” Bowser said Wednesday at a news conference.
Grocery stores, retail stores and museums would not be required to check for proof of vaccines, and religious institutions are exempt, officials said. Eligible students in Washington, DC, schools are also mandated to get vaccinated by March 1.
Meantime, some universities are adjusting spring semesters by transitioning to online learning temporarily, and others are mandating booster doses for vaccinated students and staff. Duke University this week joined the list of schools – including Syracuse, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Hofstra and New York University – that have recently announced a booster vaccine requirement.
“These steps will help limit a potential outbreak on our campus and in our community and protect those most vulnerable to this virus,” a statement from Duke said.
In California, health care workers – already under a vaccine mandate – will be required to get a booster shot, and students will be tested before returning to school in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.
Covid-19 testing crunch arrives
With the surge of Omicron cases – and Christmas and New Year’s fast approaching – the demand for Covid-19 tests is greatly exceeding current supply and has resulted in long lines nationwide, as well as a risk of positive cases not being detected.
The Biden administration plans to provide 500 million new tests by next month, yet time will be needed to fulfill the orders and details are still being worked out, a senior administration official told CNN.
“To be clear, we’re not sending a test to every single home in the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing. “We are providing an opportunity, another opportunity or ability for people to … go on a website and request a test if their preference is to get that test to their home. Not everybody will do that. But we want people who want to do that, who want to get tested, who want to request test that way to have that ability to do (it).”
CVS Health and Walgreens – the two largest pharmaceutical chain stores in the US – announced they are limiting the number of at-home Covid-19 kits customers can buy due to significant demand.
More treatments get authorized
The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday authorized Merck’s antiviral pill, molnupiravir, “for the treatment of mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in adults … at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death, and for whom alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate.”
The agency on Wednesday authorized the first pill to treat Covid-19. Pfizer’s Paxlovid “should be initiated as soon as possible after diagnosis of Covid-19 and within five days of symptom onset,” according to an FDA statement. Combining two antiviral drugs, Paxlovid is to be prescribed by a doctor and administered as three pills twice a day for five days.
The White House has purchased 10 million courses of Pfizer’s antiviral treatment, with 265,000 available in January and “with monthly totals of pills ramping up across the year and all 10 million treatment courses delivered by late summer,” according to Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.
Paxlovid is not for pre- or post-exposure prevention of Covid-19 and “is not a substitute for vaccination in individuals for whom Covid-19 vaccination and a booster dose are recommended,” the FDA said.
CNN’s Deidre McPhillips, Jamie Gumbrecht, Amanda Sealy, Aya Elamroussi, DJ Judd, Laura Ly, Sam Feist, Kristina Sgueglia, Stella Chan, Sarah Fortinsky, Adrienne Winston and Daniel Maraccini contributed to this report.