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Omicron surge is undermining care for other health problems


Roger Strukhoff was being treated for intestinal bleeding at a hospital outside Chicago this month when he suffered a mild heart attack.

Normally, the 67-year-old would have been sent to the intensive care unit. But Strukhoff said it was overrun with COVID-19 patients, and the staff instead had to wheel a heart monitor into his room and quickly administer nitroglycerin and morphine.

“A doctor I know pretty well said, ‘Roger, we’re going to have to improvise right here,’” said Struk- hoff, who lives in DeKalb, Illinois.

The omicron surge this win- ter has not only swamped U.S. hospitals with record numbers of patients with COVID-19, it has also caused frightening moments and major headaches for people trying to get treatment for other ailments.

Less-urgent procedures have been put on hold around the country, such as cochlear im- plant surgeries and steroid in- jections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medi- cal complaints have had to wait in emergency rooms for hours longer than usual.

Mat Gleason said he wheeled his 92-year-old father, Eugene Gleason, into a Los Angeles-area emergency room last week for a transfusion to treat a blood disor- der. It should have taken about seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his dad was there for 48 hours.

Hesaidhisfathercalledhim after 10 hours, asking for a blan- ket.

“He told me later, ‘I just as- sumed they forgot about me,” said Gleason, 57, who works as an art critic. “And yet he wasn’t the only person in that room. There were dozens of people” But Gleason added: “I’m not begrudg- ing the hospital at all. They did a great job.”

Anaverageofalmost144,000 peoplewereinthehospitalinthe U.S. with COVID-19 as of Tues- day, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Dis- ease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in a few states such as New York and Connecticut that experiencedearlyomicronsurges are starting to see an easing of the patient load, but many other places are overwhelmed.

Hospitals say the COVID-19 patients aren’t as sick as those during the last surge. And many of them are being admit- ted for reasons other than CO- VID-19 and only incidentally testing positive for the virus.

RickPollack,CEOandpresi- dent of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a widespread effect on the availability of care for people who have non-COV- ID-19 health problems. He said a number of factors are atplay:Morepeopleareinthe hospital, and a high number of health care workers are out with COVID-19, worsening staffing shortages that existed well before the pandemic.

Many people are also un- able or unwilling to seek care for symptoms that do not seem like emergencies, he said. Pol- lack said that has led to delays in diagnosing conditions such as diabetes or high blood pres- sure that get worse the longer they go untreated.

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