Speed Reads

It's complicated

Why hospitals are struggling with Omicron even as fewer people are getting seriously ill

"In hospitals around the country, doctors are taking notice: This wave of COVID seems different from the last one," The New York Times reports. Yes, hospitals are filling up again as cases surge, "but in Omicron hot spots from New York to Florida to Texas, a smaller proportion of those patients are landing in intensive care units or requiring mechanical ventilation." And there is mounting evidence that Omicron is intrinsically milder for most people, especially the vaccinated or previously infected.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations," Dr. Rahul Sharma, emergency physician in chief for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, told the Times. But "we're not sending as many patients to the ICU, we're not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged."

These "very strong signals" about Omicron's reduced severity are "unambiguously good news!" Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch wrote in a chart-heavy Twitter thread. "But ... as with everything in this pandemic, once we dig deeper it gets complicated."

And one of the big complications is that while the Omicron variant appears to be less dangerous for individuals, it is still putting a lot of strain on hospitals. "Not every hospital is overwhelmed, but a lot of them are," Politico's Erin Banco explains. "Doctors and nurses are struggling to keep up with the work of caring for the influx of patients, not only because there are just more of them, but also because staff are calling out sick with COVID."

In both London and the U.S., "the picture is clear: While ICU is under less pressure from COVID this year, the rest of the hospital is facing more," Burn-Murdoch wrote. At the same time, "the number of ICU patients is a lagging indicator, likely to rise in the coming weeks," the Times reports. "What's more, some states are still struggling under the crush of hospitalizations from Delta."

It's "hard to condense" this wave "into a simple takeaway," Burn-Murdoch concludes. "Yes, a much lower share of cases are developing severe disease. Yes, deaths for this wave will remain well below past peaks. But no, this does not mean everything is fine."

But nobody can be sure what's next, either, the Times notes. "It has been about six weeks since the world first learned about Omicron, and hospital personnel are still waiting nervously to see how the coming weeks unfold."