Omicron surge is undermining care for other health problems

Jan 21, 2022, 9:00 AM | Updated: 10:08 am

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 Strukhoff, who lives in DeKalb, Illinois.

The omicron surge this winter 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 implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medical 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 disorder. It should have taken about seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his dad was there for 48 hours.

He said his father called him after 10 hours, asking for a blanket.

“He told me later, ‘I just assumed 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 begrudging the hospital at all. They did a great job.”

An average of almost 144,000 people were in the hospital in the U.S. with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in a few states such as New York and Connecticut that experienced early omicron surges 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 admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 and only incidentally testing positive for the virus.

Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a widespread effect on the availability of care for people who have non-COVID-19 health problems. He said a number of factors are at play: More people are in the hospital, and a high number of health care workers are out with COVID-19, worsening staffing shortages that existed well before the pandemic.

As of Wednesday, roughly 23% of hospitals nationwide were reporting critical staff shortages, Pollack said.

Many people are also unable or unwilling to seek care for symptoms that do not seem like emergencies, he said. Pollack said that has led to delays in diagnosing conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure that get worse the longer they go untreated.

Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer for Cook County Health in Chicago, said some people, particularly older patients, have been avoiding checkups and other routine care during the pandemic out of fear of COVID-19.

And as a result, “the patients we’re seeing now are much sicker,” she said, citing cases of advanced heart failure and cancer that might have been diagnosed earlier.

Mike Bawden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in his lungs, said he couldn’t get an appointment to see his doctor in Davenport, Iowa, because his coughing symptoms were too similar to COVID-19. The doctor’s office was concerned about the virus spreading to others.

After nearly two weeks, Bawden went to a walk-in clinic, which sent him to the emergency room at Genesis Medical Center-East in Davenport. He said he waited almost six hours in an overflowing ER before he was seen. A scan showed clots in his lungs, as he suspected, and he was prescribed blood thinners.

If not for the surge, Bawden said, he would have gotten a scan much earlier at a doctor’s office.

“It’s always so easy to Monday morning quarterback the ER, but everyone was really nice — even the other patients,” Bawden said. “I think it’s important for folks to realize that nobody’s the villain.”

Craig Cooper, a Genesis spokesman, declined to comment on any individual cases. But he said in an email: “We are not exempt from the challenges medical centers across the United States are experiencing because of significant impact from COVID. We urge individuals to get vaccinated.”

Strukhoff, who is a researcher for tech startups, said he arrived at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb for what he suspected was internal bleeding.

He was diagnosed and given a bed in the emergency room. He waited there for six hours, feeling dizzy, before he was wheeled to his own room through hallways where people lay on stretchers.

“I was in no distress at that point,” Strukhoff said. “I was worried about clogging up the works in the emergency room and taking up a spot for other people.”

Christopher King, a spokesman for Northwestern Medicine, declined to comment on Strukhoff’s care because of privacy laws. But he confirmed that wait times were higher than normal throughout the hospital system, as they are across the country.

Strukhoff said that once he got his own hospital room, a colonoscopy revealed the bleeding. Doctors treated it by cauterizing a vein. He then suffered the heart attack while he was recovering. He said it took five hours for him to get into the ICU.

“It’s not something they were set up to do, but they did it,” Strukhoff said of the doctors and nurses who rose to the challenge. “These people are heroes.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Pr...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: What is monkeypox and where is it spreading?

LONDON (AP) — Health authorities in Europe, North America, Israel and Australia have identified more than 100 cases of monkeypox in recent days. Officials around the world are keeping watch for more cases because, for the first time, the rare disease appears to be spreading among people who didn’t travel to Africa, where monkeypox is […]
8 hours ago
FILE - Farmer Dimitris Kakalis, 25, fills a spray machine with pesticide at his vineyard near the t...
Associated Press

Report: Dramatic rise in pesticides in EU fruits, vegetables

BRUSSELS (AP) — The contamination of fruits and vegetables produced in the European Union by the most toxic pesticides has substantially increased over the past decade, according to new research published Tuesday. The study by the Pesticide Action Network Europe group said European citizens have been exposed to a “dramatic rise” in both the frequency […]
8 hours ago
Miles Teller and his wife Keleigh Sperry pose for the media during the 'Top Gun Maverick' UK premie...
Associated Press

Need for speed: Indy 500 tabs ‘Rooster’ to wave green flag

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Miles Teller feels the need, the need for speed — and the “Top Gun: Maverick” actor will get it as the honorary starter for what should be the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history. Teller will wave the green flag for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday. The […]
8 hours ago
Actor Amber Heard listens in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Va....
Associated Press

Amber Heard rests case in civil suit without calling Depp

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Actor Amber Heard rested her case Tuesday in the civil suit between her and ex-husband Johnny Depp without calling Depp to the stand. Heard’s lawyers had initially suggested they would call Depp as a witness, but ultimately opted against it. Depp is suing Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit […]
8 hours ago
This undated photo provided by Charon Reed shows Celestine Chaney, who was killed in Saturday's sho...
Associated Press

Funeral set for Celestine Chaney, Buffalo supermarket victim

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Funeral services are planned Tuesday for Celestine Chaney, whose shooting death in a racist attack inside a Buffalo supermarket was recorded and shared across the internet. Chaney, 65, was among 10 Black people killed May 14 when a white gunman wearing body armor and a helmet-mounted camera targeted shoppers and workers […]
8 hours ago
FILE - White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in W...
Associated Press

Ex-White House press secretary Jen Psaki hired by MSNBC

NEW YORK (AP) — Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki has officially landed at MSNBC, where she is expected to make appearances on the network’s cable and streaming programs as well as host a new original show. The program, set to debut in the first quarter of 2023, will “bring together her unique perspective […]
8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
...
Christina O’Haver

Stroke month: Experts call attention to stroke prevention

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Omicron surge is undermining care for other health problems