Hospitals across the U.S. are again suspending non-urgent surgeries in response to a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in order to make room for patients in need of care most immediately.
On Friday, the Cleveland Clinic extended a halt on nonessential procedures, the latest among a growing number of systems to take such measures as hospital beds fill quickly. Intermountain Healthcare warned in a press briefing that its ICUs are near full capacity.
Three major healthcare associations, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday reiterated pleas for all eligible Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots to protect themselves and their communities as families and friends gather for the holidays.
"For nearly two years, our nation's physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals have seen firsthand the tragic impact of COVID-19 on the patients and colleagues they have lost as well as those suffering from the virus' long-term effects and the families and loved ones left behind. For people trained to save lives, this moment is frustrating, exhausting and heartbreaking," the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association said in a joint statement.
The delta and omicron variants are driving the latest wave of U.S. cases and hospitalizations, which are rising most rapidly in the Northeast and Midwest. As of Sunday afternoon, 45 U.S. states had confirmed cases of COVID-19 illness caused by the fast-moving omicron variant. The first U.S. case was identified on Dec. 1, roughly three weeks after the first omicron specimens were collected in Botswana, according to the CDC.
The AHA, AMA and ANA emphasized that science has shown that getting a booster shot lowers the chance of contracting COVID-19. Underscoring the heightened risk of disease spread, Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the omicron variant is "raging through the world."
Omicron has now been identified in 89 countries and is spreading significantly faster than the delta variant, with cases doubling within one and a half to three days in countries that have seen community transmission, according to a World Health Organization technical brief issued Friday. This includes areas where there are high levels of population immunity. "Given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many healthcare systems may become quickly overwhelmed," the WHO warned.
The CDC stressed that vaccines remain the best public health tools to protect people and slow transmission, and are effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death. However, breakthrough infections are likely in fully vaccinated people, and it is not yet clear how effective current vaccines will be against new variants, including omicron, the agency cautioned.
The swift spread of omicron comes just as U.S. hospitals were experiencing an uptick in elective procedures with rates of new COVID-19 cases slowing in October, before they quickly regained momentum. Across the country, 79% of ICU beds are now in use, according to an HHS dashboard.
By the end of November, some hospitals in hard-hit Michigan were already postponing non-urgent procedures, the Detroit Free Press reported. With cases on the rise in the Northeast, Massachusetts' public health department issued an emergency order in late November requiring hospitals with limited capacity to reduce non-urgent scheduled procedures. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order that gave the state's health department the authority to postpone elective surgeries at hospitals with limited capacity. New York's order went into effect Dec. 3.
On Dec. 7, the Cleveland Clinic made the decision to postpone for 10 days scheduled nonessential surgeries requiring a hospital bed in its Ohio facilities due to rapidly increasing hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients.
Cleveland Clinic is now extending that postponement through Dec. 31 to make additional beds available as the system continues to be challenged by rising inpatient volumes. Essential and urgent surgeries as well as heart, cancer, pediatric and transplantation procedures, and outpatient surgeries, will continue to be scheduled.
National Guard units in recent days have been called to assist hospitals with COVID-19 patients in New York, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire and Maine, according to media reports. Hospitals in Minnesota have taken out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune newspaper urging residents in the state to get vaccinated and get boosters, saying they are running out of beds, and their emergency departments are overfilled with patients.
The surge in COVID-19 cases is slamming hospitals beyond the Midwest and Northeast. Utah's Intermountain Healthcare on Friday said hospital volumes across the state remain very high, driven by a combination of admissions for influenza infections and COVID-19. ICUs are at or near full capacity, Brandon Webb, Intermountain infectious diseases physician, said during a media briefing. "Going into the next month, that's concerning, because we're projecting that the omicron variant will significantly burden the healthcare system because of its transmissibility," he said.
Arizona-based Banner Health told reporters last week that its facilities are evaluating their ability to perform scheduled surgeries on a daily basis. "We have had postponements of these procedures due to mostly our ICU constrained capacity," said Marjorie Bessel, the system's chief clinical officer.