Omicron variant fears Michigan spiral among overworked nurses

Over the past month, Michigan medical workers have rushed to another holiday season defined by the increase in COVID-19 cases, an almost surreal descent reminiscent of the pre-vaccine era in which the State has become a hotspot for the pandemic.

Cases have risen dramatically and hospitals across the state have been pushed to the brink. Looming mass rallies, lax mask practices and stagnant vaccination rates were already causing doctors and nurses to fear further chaos.

Then came the threat of the super-mutated Omicron variant, which – as early as it is – experts fear was even more contagious and possibly even vaccine resistant than the Delta strain that rocked the system. state hospital this fall.

“I don’t know how much more our hospitals can take,” a Grand Rapids nurse, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “We are all already working overtime. Could the idea of ​​more patients, fewer resources and variations cause more problems? It’s a nightmare.”

The Omicron variant, officially known as B.1.1.529, was classified as “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday. The variant, first identified outside of southern Africa, has been met with travel restrictions across the globe, including the United States imposing a new ban on most visitors to South Africa and from seven other African countries. Even though scientists warn, we know very little about the unique dangers it can pose, beyond the fact that it has dozens of mutations, including more than 30 on the “peak” protein that helps the virus to invade the body.

As of Monday afternoon, perhaps thanks to a notoriously lacking disease surveillance system in the United States, no cases of the new variant had been identified in Michigan or any other state. But with cases identified by authorities around the world, including as close to Michigan’s hotspot as Ontario, Canada, frontline workers were bracing for the worst.

“The idea of ​​a new variant is just something we can’t quite figure out yet,” Lansing nurse Anthony Huynh told The Daily Beast.

Even before Omicron’s emergence, fears of a possible tsunami of cases prompted the federal government to accede to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request for personnel assistance, sending more than 50 medical professionals to help two hospitals. state for the next 30 days.

That’s because unlike some states that are already seeing an increase in cases – and a planet ready to panic at the prospect of a frightening new variant – Michigan is already in the red zone.

The daily average of new cases has increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks, according to The New York Times. The Michigan Department of Health said Monday that more than 84 percent of intensive care unit beds were full, as well as more than 80 percent of total inpatient beds. With hospitalizations increasing steadily over the past 19 weeks, nine Michigan hospitals are now fully full and another 22 hospitals are at 90 percent of capacity.

“Hospitals are at full capacity statewide, particularly in metro Detroit and western Michigan, and it’s taking a heavy toll on our healthcare workers,” said Elizabeth Hertel, department director. Michigan Health and Human Services, in a statement.

As always, state data suggests that a large majority of those hospitalizations are residents who did not receive the coronavirus vaccine or the subsequent booster. In the past month, 72 percent of cases and more than 70 percent of hospitalizations were among the unvaccinated. Almost 75 percent of deaths in Michigan were also associated with those who had not received a jab.

Experts generally expect vaccines to provide at least some protection against any mutation in the coronavirus, including Omicron. And officials from President Biden to Dr.Anthony Fauci are calling on Americans to take the steps we know have worked in the past: get vaccines (and boosters) and wear masks.

But in Michigan, relatively low vaccination rates make the emergence of the new variant all the more worrying.

“There is a feeling that it is more transmissible, but we just don’t know that yet,” Dr. Preeti Malani, director of health and professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, told The Daily Beast on Monday. . “But what we do know is that it could go in a very bad direction.”

For Huynh, a nurse at Sparrow Hospital, the workload is already overwhelming and the idea of ​​additional stress imposed by a new variant is practically “unimaginable”.

The 28-year-old was only months away from his nursing career in the medical oncology unit when the pandemic began and has been on the front lines of the deadly pandemic ever since.

Throughout the pandemic, Huynh and her colleagues put themselves through weeks of gueling work, volunteered for extra shifts to support each other, and faced the reality that less staff means more. of time in the hospital around COVID.

“I think the fear is that during the holidays, people want to be with their families and forget that a pandemic is happening. But without a high number of vaccinations, this attitude means hospitals will experience a massive increase in cases and staff will have to work harder than ever to meet demand, ”Huynh said. “And we don’t even know what the variant will bring.”

Jamie Brown, president of the Michigan Nurses Association and a nurse herself, echoed staff frustration and general exhaustion, adding that the threat of the new variant has already left hospital staff “demoralized.”

Brown said the union, which currently represents thousands of nurses across the state, has heard from a large number of members about the dire conditions at Sparrow Hospital in particular, where workers recently voted to authorize a strike. potential. A hospital spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We welcome any appropriate government assistance as long as it is not used to undermine a strike that seeks immediate and long-term improvements in personnel and safety,” Brown added.

Likewise, for the Grand Rapids nurse, working conditions were “almost as bad as they were. [were] last year, and I doubt they’ll get any better anytime soon.

“Last year we were able to justify the workload knowing that mass vaccination against COVID would relieve the pressure,” she added. “It’s been almost a year of vaccines, and the pressure is greater than ever. “

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