Omicron explosion prompts nationwide breakdown in service



An ambulance in Kansas sped toward the hospital, then abruptly changed course because the hospital was full. Staff shortages in New York City caused delays in subway and trash services, and reduced the ranks of firefighters and first responders. Airport officials closed security checkpoints at the largest terminal in Phoenix, and schools across the country struggled to find teachers for their classes.

The current outbreak of omicron-fueled coronavirus infections in the US is causing breakdowns in basic functions and services – the latest illustration of how COVID-19 keeps lives going longer two years after the pandemic.

“This really happened, reminding people of when COVID-19 first emerged,” said Tom Cotter, director of emergency preparedness and response at the global nonprofit HOPE Project. and there have been such major disruptions in every part of our normal lives. “And the unfortunate reality is, there’s no way of predicting what’s going to happen next until we’ve gotten our vaccinations going – globally – up.”

First responders, hospitals, schools and government agencies have used a hands-on approach to keeping communities safe, but they worry how much longer they can keep up.

In Kansas’ Johnson County, paramedics work 80 hours a week. Ambulances are frequently forced to change course when the hospital they visit announces that they are overwhelmed to help, confusing family members of anxious patients driving behind them. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, some of their emergency patients had to lie in the waiting room because there was no bed.

Steve Stites, medical director of the University of Kansas Hospital, said that when leading a rural hospital with no place to send dialysis patients this week, hospital staff consulted a book textbook and “try to put in some catheters and figure out how to do it. “

Medical facilities have been hit by a “double hit,” he said. The number of COVID-19 patients at the University of Kansas Hospital increased from 40 on December 1 to 139 on Friday. At the same time, more than 900 employees have become ill with COVID-19 or are awaiting test results – 7% of the hospital’s 13,500 people.

“What is my hope and what we are going to get over it is when it peaks… maybe it will be at a rate of decline as fast as we saw in South Africa,” Stites said, referring to the rapidity. quickly the number of cases fell into that country. “We don’t know that. It’s just hope.”

The omicron variant is even more contagious than other coronavirus strains and has become dominant in many countries. It is also more contagious to people who have been vaccinated or have been previously infected by previous versions of the virus. However, early studies show that omicrons are less likely to cause severe disease than the earlier delta variant, and vaccination and boosters still provide strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization, and dead.

However, its easy transmission has led to a spike in cases in the US, affecting businesses, government offices and public services.

In downtown Boise, Idaho, customers lined up outside a pharmacy before the store opened on Friday morning and before long, lines filled all major pharmacies. Pharmacies have been affected by staffing shortages, either because employees are sick or have been laid off altogether.

Pharmacy technician Anecia Mascorro said that before the pandemic, Sav-On Pharmacy where she worked always had a prescription for the next day. Now, it takes longer to fill the hundreds of orders that are pouring in.

“Demand is crazy — people aren’t getting their scripts fast enough for them to keep delivering them to us,” Mascorro said.

In Los Angeles, more than 800 police and firefighters have been sidelined by the virus as of Thursday, making ambulance and fire response times slightly longer.

In New York City, officials have had to delay or scale back subway and trash can services because of employee bleeding caused by the virus. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says about a fifth of metro operators and commanders – 1,300 – have been absent in recent days. Nearly a quarter of the city’s sanitation workers were sick Thursday, Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson said.

“Everybody was working around the clock, 12-hour shifts,” Grayson said.

The city’s fire department has also adjusted for higher absences. Officials said on Thursday that 28% of EMS workers were free of the illness, compared with about 8% to 10% on a typical day. Twice as many firefighters as usual were also absent.

By contrast, the police department has seen its sickness rate drop over the past week, officials said.

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, two checkpoints at the airport’s busiest terminal were closed due to insufficient Transportation Security Administration staff, according to a statement from officials. airport and TSA.

Meanwhile, schools from coast to coast try to maintain face-to-face instruction despite the large number of teachers absent. In Chicago, intense conflict between the school district and the teachers union over distance learning and COVID-19 safety protocols has resulted in classes being canceled for the past three days. In San Francisco, nearly 900 educators and aides called on sick Thursday.

In Hawaii, where public schools are part of a school district across the state, 1,600 teachers and staff were absent Wednesday because of illness or leave or pre-arranged leave. The state’s teachers union has criticized education officials for not being better prepared for the next gap. Osa Tui Jr., head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said counselors and security guards had been dragged to “one-class babysitting.”

“It’s very inappropriate,” Tui said at a press conference. “To have this model where there are so many teachers and the department has to say, ‘Send your child’ to a classroom without a teacher, what good is that?”

In New Haven, Connecticut, where hundreds of teachers have gone out every day this week, administrators have helped cover classes. Some teachers say they appreciate it, but it can be confusing for students, adding to the physical and emotional stress they’ve been feeling because of the pandemic.

“We were tested a lot. How much tension can the elastic here stretch? ‘ asked Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Teachers’ Union.

___ Kelleher reports from Honolulu. Tang reports from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone of Boise, Idaho; Paul Davenport in Phoenix; Heather Hollingsworth of Mission, Kansas; Michelle L. Price, David Porter and Michael R. Sisak in New York; and Michael Melia of Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.

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