Hospitalizations across the country have increased 20 percent in two weeks, taxing already exhausted health care workers as the United States confronts the Omicron variant.

By Mitch Smith

On the top floor of the hospital, in the unit that houses the sickest Covid-19 patients, 13 of the 14 beds were occupied. In the one empty room, a person had just died.

Through surge after surge, caregivers in the unit at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw, Mich., have helped ailing patients say goodbye to their relatives on video calls. The medical workers have cried in the dimly lit hallways. They have seen caseloads wane, only to watch beds fill up again. Mostly, they have learned to fear the worst.

“You come back to work and you ask who died,” said Bridget Klingenberg, an intensive care nurse at Covenant, where staff levels are so strained that the Defense Department recently sent reinforcements. “I don’t think people understand the toll that that takes unless you’ve actually done it.”

The highly contagious Omicron variant arrives in the United States at a moment when there is little capacity left in hospitals, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, where case rates are the highest, and where many health care workers are still contending with the Delta variant. Some researchers are hopeful that Omicron may cause less severe disease than Delta, but health officials still worry that the new variant could send a medical system already under pressure to the breaking point.

About 1,300 Americans are dying from the coronavirus each day. The national case, death and hospitalization rates remain well below those seen last winter, before vaccines were widely available. But suddenly, positive tests are growing. State officials in New York reported more than 20,000 coronavirus cases on Friday, which they said was more than on any other day of the pandemic. In Connecticut and Maine, reports of new infections have grown by around 150 percent in the last two weeks. In Ohio and Indiana, hospitalization rates are approaching those seen during last winter’s devastating wave.

“Living in a constant crisis for 20 months-plus is a little overwhelming,” said Dr. Matthew Deibel, the medical director for emergency care at Covenant, where patients must sometimes wait hours to be seen because of a shortage of beds and staff.

With coronavirus hospitalizations increasing 20 percent nationally over the last two weeks, to 68,000 people, doctors and nurses are speaking with renewed alarm about conditions and pleading with people to get vaccinated.

Coronavirus Cases Are Up in Most States

Last week, Omicron accounted for 2.9 percent of cases across the country, up from 0.4 percent the previous week, according to projections released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, health authorities estimated that Omicron infections were already accounting for 13.1 percent of new cases.

In Minnesota, several hospital systems released a joint message saying that employees were demoralized and that “your access to health care is being seriously threatened” by the pandemic. In Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee wrote a letter to federal officials asking for staffing help, noting that “hospitals are reporting that their emergency departments are at capacity and that patients are leaving without being evaluated.” In Nebraska, a hospital released a video showing a nurse fielding three requests to care for critically ill virus patients, but having beds for only two of them. On Friday, Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio mobilized more than 1,000 National Guard members to help with hospital staffing.How Full Are Hospital I.C.U.s Near You?See how many Covid-19 patients are being treated, and how many I.C.U. beds remain available, at individual U.S. hospitals.

The outlook is especially troubling in Michigan, which has the highest coronavirus hospitalization rate in the country. About 4,700 virus patients were hospitalized statewide this week, more than had been recorded during the state’s three previous spikes. And though daily case reports have dropped slightly from the record highs seen before Thanksgiving, more than 6,500 people in Michigan continue to test positive for the virus each day.

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