Hospitals near a breaking point with latest influx of COVID patients

The Biden administration is pressing to ship more COVID test kits to schools amid growing criticism of shortages as infections pile up nationwide. But for hospitals dealing with the surge the worst is far from over. In the city of Rochester in New York state, hospitals are so over capacity and under-staffed that many are asking ambulances to take patients elsewhere. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Biden administration is pressing tonight to ship more COVID-19 test kits to schools to help keep classrooms open. It comes amid growing criticism of test shortages, and with infections piling up nationwide.

    William Brangham reports.

  • William Brangham:

    As cases surge and classrooms nationwide are disrupted, the White House is vowing to do more.

  • Jeffrey Zients, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator:

    So, today, we're taking additional actions.

  • William Brangham:

    The administration announced today it's sending five million COVID rapid tests and five million lab-based PCR tests to schools every month.

  • Jeffrey Zients:

    These 10 million additional tests available each month will allow schools to double the volume of testing they were performing in November.

  • William Brangham:

    This comes on top of the more than $10 billion allocated for testing in the COVID relief law, as well as the $130 billion earmarked in that law to help schools operate safely.

    But the fresh wave of infections is triggering another round of debates over whether schools should remain open, enforce mask mandates, or move again to remote learning.

    Nevada's Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the country, announced a five-day pause yesterday, blaming its extreme staffing shortages on the high number of positive COVID-19 cases.

    And, beyond schools, the virus is still running rampant across much of the U.S., driven by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant. Officials believe it accounts for 98 percent of new infections.

    The New York Times tracker shows average daily cases now exceed 760,000. Over two weeks, infections are up 185 percent, with the highest rates in Northeastern states like New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. On average, over 1,700 Americans are dying every day, up 40 percent over the last two weeks.

    CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says those deaths are likely from the lingering Delta variant. But even amidst this current surge, new data signal a possible silver lining with Omicron.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director:

    We are seeing early evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta. The risk of hospitalization remains low, especially among people who are up to date on their COVID vaccines.

  • William Brangham:

    And President Biden's top COVID adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said today that, while it won't be possible to wipe out this coronavirus, and likely most people will eventually get it, it is possible for society to live with it.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: We're not going to eradicate this. We have only done that with smallpox. We're not going to eliminate that. That only happens with massive vaccination programs, like we did with measles and with vaccines. But we ultimately will control it.

  • William Brangham:

    But for hospitals dealing with this surge, the worst is far from over. Just one example of how bad it is, in New York state, the Health Department has ordered 40 hospitals to stop elective surgeries.

    Upstate, around Rochester, hospitals there are so overcapacity and so understaffed that many are asking ambulances to take patients elsewhere.

    For more on this, we turn to Dr. Robert Mayo. He is the chief medical officer of Rochester Regional Health.

    Dr. Mayo, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    It sounds like you certainly have your hands full up there. Could you just give us a sense of what it's like where you are right now?

  • Dr. Robert Mayo, Chief Medical Officer, Rochester Regional Health:

    Yes, this is a very challenging time for our health system and the other health systems and health care providers in our region.

    We have a significant surge of COVID patients in the community, as well as quite a bit of our own staff are ill, exacerbating an understaffing problem. And so it has stretched us quite a lot.

  • William Brangham:

    And for the COVID patients in your hospital right now, who are those people? Are the majority of those unvaccinated patients?

  • Dr. Robert Mayo:

    Well, many of the patients are diagnosed at the time of admission. They're asymptomatic, but because of admission testing, we discover they are carrying COVID.

    Those who are symptomatic, and especially those seriously ill, requiring an ICU or ventilator level of care, those are far and away unvaccinated individuals. About 88 to 90 percent of the patients are unvaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    Obviously, this has got to be a very difficult time for your employees.

    And I know people are having to work lots of extra shifts. Can you just give us a sense of what it is like for the staff at your hospitals? What's it like for them, practically speaking, week in and week out, dealing with this?

  • Dr. Robert Mayo:

    Well, our staff have done an incredible job of stepping up to these demands, but it is very wearying for them, and we certainly understand and appreciate that.

    To fill needed gaps in our staffing, we have shifted a number of our employees. So, we have individuals who step forward and say, well, I'm willing to work in this department, even though it's not my usual assignment. Or we also have training courses where we do rapid just-in-time training to get people up to speed to help out.

    We have even had individuals, like some of our physician's assistants and nurse practitioners, who've been willing to work as R.N.s when needed to help fill some of the nursing gaps.

    So everyone's really helping out the best they can. And so it's very heartening to see that, but it is very challenging.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, that the state Health Department has asked a lot of hospitals to delay elective surgeries.

    What kinds of surgeries are being put off, and how are patients responding to those?

  • Dr. Robert Mayo:

    Well, that's always a challenge.

    Patients anticipate their surgeries. They prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for that. They may take time off work and schedule family or neighbors to help them during that initial convalescent period.

    And so changing surgeries, even when they're elective, is very disruptive to people. And many of the surgeries that are deemed elective are still important for individuals. They are surgeries, like many orthopedic surgeries, that are designed to reduce pain from degenerative joint disease.

    Some of our cancer screening procedures are being deferred. All of those things matter. And so getting back to a full-service availability in health care is very important for our communities and our nation.

  • William Brangham:

    One last question.

    I mean, we are two years into this pandemic. Is it your sense that this surge is driven — is this largely just because of Omicron's potency?

  • Dr. Robert Mayo:

    Oh, that's a really important question, William.

    I would say it's not. I think there are many factors that are really coming to the forefront of this pandemic now. We have had nursing shortages and physician and other health care career shortages for some time. And this has been predicted for years. And we need to do more to increase enrollment and support students, as well as to address the many inequities that have been highlighted during the pandemic that are systemic and important societal concerns.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Robert Mayo, chief medical officer of Rochester Regional Health, thank you so much for being here.

  • Dr. Robert Mayo:

    Thank you.

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