Health systems buckle under latest surge of COVID hospitalizations

President Biden on Friday announced free tests to help combat the rapidly spreading omicron variant. But the surge is battering hospitals and stretching some to capacity, with COVID hospitalizations jumping 179 percent in the past two weeks. William Brangham reports, and speaks with Dr. Rajan Garg, ICU medical director at Methodist Hospital of Southern California, to learn more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Omicron variant is still spreading rapidly across the U.S.

    Free tests announced by the president today should help track what's happening. But they will not ship until about seven to 12 days after an order is placed.

    In the meantime, the Omicron surge is hitting many hospitals hard and stretching some to the edge of their capacity.

    William Brangham reports on how this is playing out in California right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, Los Angeles County is averaging over 40,000 new infections a day. A week ago, it was just 25,000. That tide of infections is sending some people to the hospital. COVID hospitalizations have jumped 179 percent over the past two weeks.

    Dr. Rajan Garg is the ICU medical director at Methodist Hospital of Southern California.

    Dr. Garg, thank you so much for being here on the "NewsHour."

    You are certainly dealing at the very front edge of that tide of people coming to the hospital. What is it like right now? What kinds of patients are you seeing?

    Dr. Rajan Garg, Methodist Hospital of Southern California: William, thank you for having me.

    Yes, we are seeing a significant higher volume of COVID patients presenting with severe disease that are requiring hospitalization, and most of the patients are presenting with either severe COVID lung infections or are presenting with stroke symptoms, M.I.s, heart attacks, or big symptoms such as blood clotting disorders.

    So, our volume has gone up significantly over the past couple of months. And to give you an example, on December — in December 2021, our COVID in-patient volume was down to zero, and, as of this morning, we have 50-plus COVID patients in the hospital.

    And that includes ICU patients, of course. And it is definitely straining our system to the maximum.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, that surge is just enormous.

    Do you have a sense of the vaccination status of those patients who end up in the ICU?

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    Absolutely. Great question.

    Yes, a majority of — the vast majority of the patients who are either in the hospital or in the ICU are unvaccinated at this point. And that goes along the line of — with the national data.

    If I remember correctly, I think our patients right now, more than 90 percent of the patients who are in the hospital right now with COVID are either unvaccinated or are partially vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    And we know hospitals, like employers and workplaces all across the country, are suffering because their workers are getting sick and having to stay out and isolate.

    Are you having a similar issue as well with your own staff?

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    Absolutely.

    Majority of the — majority of our staff, we're having the same issue, actually. Approximately 50-plus staff members for our hospital are currently out with COVID. And I'm just talking about the nursing staff members.

    And so another — to give you an example, Methodist Hospital has a 40-ICU bed capacity. And, right, now currently, our need is for 25 to 30 ICU beds. But our — we are only staffed for 18 ICU beds at the moment.

    And, as of right now, we have zero ICU beds available. And, at any given time, we have three to four ICU patients who are parked in the emergency.

  • William Brangham:

    Parked in the emergency room waiting for an ICU bed to open up?

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    Absolutely.

    And that's — which is stressing — which is straining our already overwhelmed emergency rooms even more.

  • William Brangham:

    We hear this occasional statement from the senior most political public health officials in the country that Omicron is relatively mild.

    It certainly seems that, while that might be true, what you're experiencing is anything but that.

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    So, William, yes, that is true.

    Omicron, to a certain extent, is milder. But we have to keep in mind that Omicron also has higher infectivity. So, a lot more people are getting infected with the Omicron, which creates a larger volume of patients getting sick with the disease.

    And even if it's a lower percentage of the patients who are ending up in the hospital, even that creates a higher volume because of the sheer number problem right now.

    So, that's why we're seeing a huge surge, despite the fact that Omicron is a slightly milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta disease.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, did you ever imagine that, two years into this pandemic, we would still be struggling to get our arms around it like we are.

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    We definitely did not imagine and — imagine this situation.

    But the virus is mutating. And we're still learning. And with the new variants, there are new challenges every — along the way. And I think one of the bigger challenges has been the vaccination rate among the community. And, as an ICU position, I always tell my colleagues, my family and my patients that we have to keep in mind that all vaccines protect against — provide a substantial protection against severe disease.

    And by severe disease, I mean that they are very effective in keeping us out of the hospital, and especially the ICU. So, I think that that's been the bigger challenge.

    And so my message to all your viewers, as an ICU doctor, is to get vaccinated, get boosted, and wear masks while you're in enclosed spaces.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you take any comfort in the reports that seem to be coming out of New York and New Jersey and Massachusetts that that incredible peak of Omicron cases might be plateauing and even, in some places, starting to dip down?

    Do you think that that is real and might end up in your neighborhood too?

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    We are hoping that's real, William, and that that — the data is definitely promising, if you look at international data from Europe and from South Africa, or even on the East Coast in the United States.

    The data is promising, but that — the data can vary from community to community. And — but we're hoping that the surge starts to die down within the next few weeks, because, like I mentioned earlier, because of the staffing shortages, it has been extremely challenging to care for these patients.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Rajan Garg at the Methodist Hospital of Southern California, thank you so much for being here. And best of luck to you out there.

  • Dr. Rajan Garg:

    Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment