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Atlanta hospital struggles to deal with latest COVID surge


In just a month, the omicron variant has dominated new COVID infection numbers. It's now the cause of 95% of new cases, according to estimates by the CDC. And it's driving up hospitalizations, especially in the South, where fewer people are vaccinated. Earlier today Dr. Robert Jansen gave us the view from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

ROBERT JANSEN: We are pretty much overwhelmed right now with patients, probably worse than I've ever seen. The emergency department has more people in it that are waiting for beds after they've been admitted. The waiting room is more crowded than it has been during any time in this pandemic.

CORNISH: Jansen is the chief medical officer there. He says the hospital is not rationing care or turning away people who come through their doors. But they have had to reroute ambulances at times, and staffing is thin.

JANSEN: And our staff is fully vaccinated, and I think that's an important thing to point out. But because the community spread is so great, we've had a number of staff members be infected. Most of them have mild symptoms. But we require them, if they are symptomatic and test positive, just stay out of work for at least five days. And then they have to be asymptomatic before they can return back to work.

CORNISH: When we spoke earlier today, I asked Jansen whether omicron is causing different symptoms in the hospital's patients than past variants.

JANSEN: What we are seeing is more people coming in with exacerbation of underlying diseases. So, for example, someone with diabetes - if they become infected with omicron, we're seeing more people come in with diabetic ketoacidosis. So exacerbation of their underlying diseases seems to be much more common now. A lot of respiratory - upper respiratory symptoms are the early signs of this infection as opposed to the lower respiratory symptoms. So it is a little bit different profile.

But the sheer number of patients is what's leading to the impact on hospitals because even though omicron seems to be a little less severe with regards to its symptoms and the effects it has on people, because it's so infectious, we have so many more people now in the community - I think our positivity rate is running well over 30%. And that just leads to so many more people coming to the hospital.

CORNISH: What percentage of new infections are from unvaccinated people? Is that data you have already?

JANSEN: Well, so for people who require hospitalization, it's about 75% unvaccinated that are coming to the hospital. About 25% have been vaccinated. We are seeing some with severe disease, and it's primarily those who were not boosted. And it is primarily those who have underlying medical conditions that predispose them to serious illness. So immunocompromised individuals, older people are the ones that we're seeing who, even though they have been vaccinated, are coming in with serious illness.

CORNISH: So what is your forecast for the weeks ahead, right? Hospitalizations - it was always considered a lagging indicator - right? - following infection rates. So what are you concerned about looking ahead?

JANSEN: The beginning of this most recent surge of omicron really predated Christmas. And I think that's an important differential because we always looked at the post-Christmas holiday as when we started to see increase in cases. But what we have seen, I think, is an acceleration of those cases following the Christmas holiday. So anticipating, then, a further increase following New Year's, I think we're in for the next two or three weeks a pretty difficult time with increasing cases coming to the hospital. As you pointed out, infections lead to more hospitalizations that actually then lead to more critical care needs. And I think we're just now beginning to see the hospitalizations. They're not going to peak yet. I think we're in for another two weeks or so of increasing cases requiring hospitalization.

CORNISH: There's a unspoken toll here on medical professionals, and I'm wondering what morale is like.

JANSEN: You know, I think people are a little bit despondent and discouraged. You know, we've been at this for almost two years with regards to COVID. There was a lot of hope early on that if we got enough people vaccinated, things would get better. And what we've just seen is, you know, one surge after another. And so there's almost this sense of resignation that we're going to be dealing with this for a long time. And it's discouraging. It's also at times discouraging to realize that some of this could be prevented. Vaccines once again are not perfect, but they do seem to prevent serious illness. So we know that if more people had gotten vaccinated early on, we wouldn't be seeing quite much of a surge as we are now seeing in the hospital.

CORNISH: Dr. Robert Jansen is chief medical officer at Grady Memorial Hospital. That's in Atlanta, Ga. Thank you for your time, and thank you for your service.

JANSEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.