Jan. 14, 2022 -- The U.S. health care industry was already stretched thin by two years of the COVID-19 pandemic when the Omicron variant struck. As hospitals fill with patients again, experts and workers say damage to the industry may be long-lasting.

“It has exploded. We’re in a crisis, red-tier situation again,” Denise Duncan, a registered nurse and president of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, told NBC News.

Doctors and other health care professionals are overworked and continually face the threat of being infected themselves. Some are quitting or changing their jobs, causing staffing shortages in already overburdened medical facilities.

“Everyone is quitting, the nurses especially, and a lot of doctors are retiring,” a Pennsylvania physician who asked not to be named told NBC News. “I’m going back into fellowship because as a hospitalist everything is your responsibility and when patients come in and you do everything and they still die, it’s frustrating and then you have to explain to families.”

A record 1.34 million COVID cases were reported in the United States on Monday, and the seven-day daily average was more than 740,000. Twenty-four states reported record seven-day daily averages, NBC News said. Hospitalizations have gone up with the case counts.

Even before the Omicron surge, the health care system was under stress. An October 2020 report from the data intelligence company Morning Consult said 18% of health care workers quit their jobs during the pandemic and another 12% were laid off. Among workers who kept their jobs, 31% had considered leaving.

“Massive clinician turnover, long recruitment cycles, and increasing industry competition for talent are crippling acquisition and retention in the health care workforce,” the research firm Forrester said in its “Predictions 2022: Healthcare” report, NBC News reported. “These obstacles will be intensified by limited Covid-19 vaccine uptake in certain populations, unrelenting post-traumatic stress, and staff burnout."

Some hospitals are offering hazard pay to attract workers, or turning to traveling nurses or nurses from overseas, NBC News said. The Pennsylvania doctor said he knew doctors being offered $325 an hour to work in overwhelmed facilities.

But paying workers more cuts into hospitals’ bottom line. The Forrester report said that half of hospitals could have negative margins by the end of 2021.

Show Sources

NBC News: “Omicron is creating a 'crisis, red-tier situation' in health care.”

Morning Consult: “Nearly 1 in 5 Health Care Workers Have Quit Their Jobs During the Pandemic.”

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