Despite New York City’s COVID-19 case numbers surpassing all-time records in recent days, the latest surge has generally been manageable for local hospitals, so far.
Leaders at three major health care systems say they are better prepared than they were for previous waves and are seeing far fewer patients with severe symptoms who are in need of ventilators or other high levels of intensive care.
But there are concerns about staffing levels, partly because employees who test positive for COVID-19 will have to go into isolation for at least 10 days. Keeping hospitals from getting overwhelmed as the pandemic rolls into its third year is a key factor in preventing another lockdown.
“Northwell has enough supplies and space to accommodate a potential COVID-19 influx, although staffing could be challenging,” Barbara Osborn, a spokesperson for Northwell Health, the state’s largest hospital system, told WNYC/Gothamist Tuesday.
Osborn said Northwell isn’t yet seeing a staffing shortage because of high numbers calling out sick from COVID-19, “but it is something we are preparing for.”
“Our health system has a pool of nurses that we can move around where they are needed,” Osborn said. Until now, Northwell has had the personnel to spare. On December 11th, the hospital system sent 16 nurses and additional support staff to upstate hospitals that were overwhelmed. Those teams are about to return this week.
The city’s public hospital system is also taking measures to prepare for the possibility that large numbers of staff will test positive for COVID-19 and have to isolate. NYC Health + Hospitals will be shifting almost entirely to virtual visits at its clinics this week in order to redeploy nurses and other staff to hospitals and testing sites, Dr. Mitchell Katz, the hospital system’s CEO, said during a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday.
“I am concerned about a loss of staff due to omicron,” Katz said. But he added, “We are making sure we’re deploying the correct staff. We’re very agile. We know how to do this.”
Statewide, New York has broken its record for the daily number of positive coronavirus cases every 24 hours since last Friday. But while the number of city residents being hospitalized for the virus has inched up, the figures are still far lower than during the delta surge last winter or the boroughs’ first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020. It’s possible that it will take more time for hospitalizations to catch up to the case rate but early evidence suggests omicron is milder than previous strains.
Some upstate hospitals have had to suspend elective surgeries amid the omicron surge, a measure that Gov. Kathy Hochul mandated for hospitals above 90% capacity. It’s something New York City hospitals had to do during the first wave of the pandemic, but Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health, said he doesn’t anticipate having to cut services this time around. But NYC Health + Hospitals announced Tuesday evening that it would ban most visitors to limit the chances of the omicron variant spreading inside medical centers.
When the omicron variant hit around Thanksgiving, “we were prepared, not only to care for that new wave of COVID patients but non-COVID patients as well,” said François.
Currently, about 40% of patients who have been admitted to NYU Langone facilities who have COVID are “incidental.” That means the patients came in for another reason and happened to test positive for the virus, François said. He added that the hospital is setting aside dedicated rooms for those patients and taking other infection control measures.
The majority of patients coming in because of a severe case of COVID are unvaccinated, François said. He added that the patients who were vaccinated and have been hospitalized are typically elderly or have another medical condition such as renal disease or cancer.
François said NYU Langone constructed a special respiratory unit to employ in case COVID cases began to overwhelm the emergency department again, but it has so far gone unused.