Omicron surge is disrupting care for other health problems

“He told me later, ‘I just thought they forgot about me,'” said Gleason, a 57-year-old art critic. “But he wasn’t the only person in that room. There were dozens of people” but Gleason added: “I don’t skimp on the hospital at all. They’re doing a great job.”

On average, nearly 144,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals that experienced early omicron surges in a few states, such as New York and Connecticut, are starting to see a reduction in patient burdens, but many other places are overwhelmed.

Hospitals say COVID-19 patients are not as sick as those during the last surge. Many of them were admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 and only accidentally tested positive for the virus.

Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a wide-ranging impact on the availability of care for patients with non-COVID-19 health conditions. A number of factors are at play, he said: More people are in hospitals, and large numbers of health care workers are out with COVID-19, exacerbating staffing shortages that existed before the pandemic.

As of Wednesday, about 23 percent of hospitals across the country were reporting severe staffing shortages, Pollack said.

Many were also unable or unwilling to seek treatment for symptoms that did not appear to be an emergency, he said. This leads to delayed diagnosis of conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and the longer it goes untreated, the more severe the condition, Pollack said.

Some people, especially older patients, have been avoiding exams and other routine care during the pandemic due to fear of COVID-19, said Dr. Claudia Fagan, chief medical officer for the Cook County Health Department in Chicago.

As a result, “we are now seeing patients who are much sicker,” she said, citing cases of advanced heart failure and cancer that may have been diagnosed earlier.

Mike Bawden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in the lungs, said he couldn’t make an appointment to see a doctor in Davenport, Iowa, because his cough was too similar to COVID-19. The doctor’s office is concerned that the virus will spread to others.

Nearly two weeks later, Bowdoin went to a walk-in clinic that took him to the emergency room at Genesis Medical Center-East in Davenport. He said he waited nearly six hours in an overcrowded emergency room before being seen. As he suspected, scans showed clots in his lungs and he was prescribed blood thinners.

Bowdoin said if it wasn’t for the surge, he would have had the scans in the doctor’s office earlier.

“It’s always easy to quarterback the ER on Monday morning, but everyone is very nice — even the other patients,” Bowdoin said. “I think it’s important for people to realize that no one is a villain.”

Genesis spokesman Craig Cooper declined to comment on any individual case. But he said in an email: “Due to the significant impact of COVID, we are not exempt from the challenges faced by medical centers across the United States. We urge individuals to get vaccinated.”

Strukhoff, a researcher at the tech startup, said he came to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb with suspicion of internal bleeding.

He was diagnosed and given a bed in the emergency room. He waited there for six hours, feeling dizzy, before being pushed to his room and across the hallway where people lay on stretchers.

“I didn’t have any pain at the time,” Struhoff said. “I’m worried about clogging up emergency room work and taking up a space for someone else.”

Northwestern Medicine spokesman Christopher King declined to comment on Strukhoff’s care because of privacy laws. But he confirmed that wait times were higher than normal across the hospital system, as they are across the country.

Once he got his own room, Strukhoff said, a colonoscopy showed bleeding. Doctors treat it by cauterizing the vein. He then suffered a heart attack while recovering. He said it took him five hours to get into intensive care.

“It wasn’t something they were meant to do, but they did it,” Struhoff said of the doctors and nurses who rose to the challenge. “These people are heroes.”

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