As the Omicron variant sweeps the nation, it’s disrupting everything from garbage collection and emergency services, schools and travel as employees are out sick or in quarantine.
In New York, trash is going uncollected and three subway lines are closed because so many workers are out sick.
Schools and hospitals are reporting staff shortages, too, and airlines continue to cancel flights.
More than 700,000 new Covid-19 cases a day are reported on average across the nation as the Omicron variant spreads like wildfire, and it’s not going to get better soon, health experts and economists said.
“Upwards of five million Americans will be stuck at home over the coming days,” said Andrew Hunter, an economist at Capital Economics.
City services are reporting shortages
Departments across New York City are reporting worker shortages, with about 20% of the fire department’s emergency service workers out sick Monday, and about 22% of sanitation workers out over the past week.
And it’s not just New York.
“A substantial number of communities have experienced delays in the collection of their trash and recyclables due to the surge in Covid cases over the past few weeks,” David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told CNN on Monday.
In some cities, almost a quarter of the trash collection workforce has called in sick in recent weeks, according to the association.
‘Critical staff shortages’ at many hospitals
The health care sector is especially hard hit. Almost a quarter of American hospitals are reporting a “critical staff shortage,” according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Of the 5,000 or so hospitals that reported such data to the HHS on Saturday, nearly 1,200 said they are currently experiencing a critical staffing shortage. More than 100 hospitals said they anticipate a shortage within the next week.
“So much of our hospital workforce is getting knocked out, at home with symptomatic Covid,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
In Colorado, so many emergency medical technicians are out, they are now turning away some non-urgent callers under emergency protocols put in place for the first time since April 2020.
“With many EMS staff out ill and with high demands for patient transports, guidance to the EMS providers on how to best use their services is needed at this time,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement Friday evening in announcing “crisis standards of care” for its EMS staff.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN on Saturday the next several weeks will “look bad in many American cities.”
“The DC Hospital Association, where I work, has asked the DC government for permission for hospitals to enact crisis standards of care,” he said. “And that’s coming to every city in the United States.”
Schools are also experiencing staff shortages
Thousands of schools did not reopen last week after the winter break because of Covid-19. In Boston last week, 1,000 Boston public school staffers — including 650 teachers — were out.
In Los Angeles, more than 60,000 school staff members and students tested positive for the virus in the run-up to schools reopening Tuesday.
A Greensboro, North Carolina, school district suspended school bus transportation for eight of its high schools beginning Monday because of the “severe bus driver shortage made worse by rising Covid-19 cases,” a statement from Guilford County Schools said. The district offered free rides on city buses instead.
The critical workforce shortage was one of the reasons the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance and shortened the isolation period for people with Covid-19 who aren’t symptomatic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN recently.
“If you are asymptomatic, and you’re infected, we want to get people back to the jobs, particularly those with essential jobs, to keep our society running smoothly,” Fauci told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Airlines are canceling flights
Air travel has been affected since at least December, and not just because of severe winter weather. More than 25,000 flights have been canceled since Christmas. Southwest Airlines canceled 6% of its total schedule for Sunday and delayed 833 other flights.
“Unfortunately, a series of winter weather systems throughout the U.S. coupled with the rapidly spreading omicron variant put extraordinary pressure on our operation, our employees and customers like you,” Delta Air Lines Executive Vice President Allison Ausband wrote to customers last week.
“It has been one of the most difficult operational environments we’ve ever faced, and it forced us to cancel hundreds of flights as a result,” Ausband said.
The new CDC guidelines “are expected to help alleviate staffing pressure in the weeks ahead and smooth out operational difficulties,” she wrote.
Alaska Airlines, in the meantime, has cut 10% of its flights through the end of January.
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