As a Covid-19 testing shortage compounds a burgeoning crisis of new hospitalizations, more states are racing to help hospitals and health care networks with staff and supplies.
Staffing shortages are growing as frontline health care workers – who are at a higher risk of exposure – are infected and need to quarantine at a time when the spread of the Omicron variant is driving more people to hospitals.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said late Friday more than 200 National Guard members will be deployed to dozens of testing sites, joining other states that have mobilized National Guard members for medical and nonmedical tasks to help overburdened health care facilities.
“It really is, right now, a viral blizzard because there’s a lot of infections,” said Dr. Samer Antonios, chief clinical officer at Ascension Via Christi Health in Kansas, where Gov. Laura Kelly signed a state of disaster emergency this week due to Covid-19 challenges.
Nearly 132,000 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals as of Friday, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s not far from the all-time peak (about 142,200 in mid-January 2021) and an increase from around 45,000 in early November.
Because of staffing shortages in some health care systems around the country, through illnesses or people quitting because of exhaustion, the nation “cannot provide that same quality of care to 130,000 patients now like we did last year,” Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at the University of Virginia Health, told CNN Saturday.
To safeguard hospital capacity, some states have cut elective surgeries at certain facilities.
In New York, 40 hospitals – mainly in the Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes and central regions – have been told to stop nonessential elective operations for at least two weeks because of low patient bed capacity, the state health department said Saturday.
As more patients need care, many people with possible Covid-19 symptoms have been left wanting as tests remain hard to find, and doctors have asked those who suspect they are positive to isolate at home with or without confirmation of infection.
Long lines have been par for the course at many testing facilities since the holidays. In Utah, four state-operated testing sites that experience some of the “highest demand and longest wait times” will be available by appointment only, starting Saturday, due to surging demand, Utah’s health department said Friday.
The move came as officials took other measures to counter the virus’s spread. Utah’s most populous county, Salt Lake County, on Friday issued a 30-day mask mandate for all indoor public venues.
To try to increase the supply of tests, the Biden administration has pledged to distribute 500 million free rapid tests nationwide. Officials have offered few details, but they expect to launch a website this month where people can sign up for the tests online and then receive them via mail.
The first contract to procure tests has been signed and more are expected in the coming weeks, officials told CNN Friday.
Vaccine requirements changing
Nearly two-thirds of Americans eligible to receive a vaccine – anyone ages 5 and up – have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet the number of those inoculated and boosted is far lower, with 22% of the total population having done so.
The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday amended the emergency use authorization for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, shortening the period of time between initial vaccination and the booster shot from at least six months to five months for those over the age of 18.
“Vaccination is our best defense against Covid-19, including the circulating variants, and shortening the length of time between completion of a primary series and a booster dose may help reduce waning immunity,” said Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
The FDA has already shortened the time needed before receiving a booster shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from six to five months. The Pfizer booster is authorized for everyone age 12 and older.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday she is mandating all healthcare workers to get a Covid-19 booster shot within two weeks of eligibility.
“Healthcare workers will be asked to do this with no exemptions other than a medical exemption and no test out options,” Hochul said. All healthcare workers were previously required to be fully vaccinated in September.
Neighboring Connecticut issued a similar order Thursday, as long-term care staff and hospital employees are mandated to receive booster doses in the upcoming weeks.
Debate over Covid-19 safety measures in schools
Hospitalizations among children have jumped sharply, and concern over student safety remains high.
At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the positivity rate for children tested for Covid-19 has increased from 17.5% in December to 45% to date in January, according to CHLA Medical Director Dr. Michael Smit.
CHLA currently has 41 patients in-house who have tested positive for Covid-19, and roughly one quarter of the children admitted to the facility with Covid-19 require admission to the pediatric ICU, with some requiring intubation, Smit told CNN Saturday.
In response to rising pediatric hospitalizations, disputes over whether in-person learning is ideal during the Omicron surge and how students can safely attend school are playing out in various school districts this week.
Nearly 13% of New York City students tested positive for Covid-19 over a 24-hour period, according to sample testing from the city’s department of education Thursday. No schools are closed at this time due to Covid-19 cases, according to additional DOE data, but six school classrooms remain closed.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has canceled classes since Wednesday due to a dispute between city officials and the teachers union over returning to the classroom, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wants a deal between the two parties completed this weekend.
“Our kids need to be back in school. Schools are safe,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) had voted to teach remotely due to the Covid-19 surge, but the school district canceled classes, saying it wanted in-person learning.
The CTU presented a new proposal to Lightfoot on Saturday the union said would provide clarity on a return to the classroom, create increased safety and testing protocols and restart the education process for students.
CPS rejected the proposal, saying it looked forward “to continued negotiations to reach an agreement.”
The school district did agree with CTU’s request they provide KN95 masks for all staff and students for the remainder of the school year and said they will continue to provide weekly Covid-19 testing to all students and staff.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said in a statement Saturday his office had helped secure 350,000 rapid antigen tests for Chicago Public Schools.
“I am committed to seeing our kids and teachers safely in classrooms ASAP,” he said in the statement.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, students and employees will need to show a negative Covid-19 test result before in-person learning resumes Tuesday.
The baseline test requirement was implemented at the beginning of the school year in August, and the district announced a week ago both the baseline test, along with required weekly testing for all employees and students would continue through January, given the current Omicron surge.
“Ghostbusters-level” sanitation practices, along with other protocols like universal masking, have allowed every one of the district’s more than 1,000 schools to stay open for in-person learning this academic year, LAUSD Chief Communications Officer Shannon Haber told CNN Saturday.
In Georgia, public school teachers who test positive for Covid-19 no longer must isolate before returning to school, and contact tracing in schools is no longer required, according to a letter to school leaders released Thursday from Gov. Brian Kemp and public health commissioner Kathleen Toomey.
The Georgia Department of Public Health posted an updated administrative order Wednesday allowing teachers and school staff – regardless of vaccination status – to return to work after a Covid-19 exposure or a positive Covid-19 test if they remain asymptomatic and wear a mask while at work.
“Students, parents, and educators have made it clear to us that they want to be in the classroom, and we are looking into many methods to continue safe, in-person learning – including updated quarantine and isolation protocols, reduced contact tracing requirements, and augmented testing opportunities,” the letter from Kemp and Toomey said.
Local school districts may still develop and follow their own quarantine and isolation requirements, according to the order.
CNN’s Natasha Chen, Naomi Thomas, Deidre McPhillips, Kaitlan Collins, Chris Boyette, Michelle Watson, Carma Hassan, Laura Dolan, Steve Almasy, Melissa Alonso, Raja Razek and Rob Frehse contributed to this report.