A Nevada woman hands back a nose swab after administering herself a COVID-19 test during a preview of a testing site in North Las Vegas, Nev. (Image via AP Photo/John Locher, File)
A Nevada woman hands back a nose swab after administering herself a COVID-19 test during a preview of a testing site in North Las Vegas, Nev. (Image via AP Photo/John Locher, File)

NC hospitals fill up with COVID patients, as federal officials reveal their plan to increase availability of at-home tests.

North Carolina’s hospital leaders, alarmed at rising hospitalizations, wrote an open letter to the public this week, pleading for help.

“Our hospitals are filling up fast with COVID patients,” they wrote, “a vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.” 

The letter, sent through the NC Healthcare Association on behalf of its 130 hospitals and hospital systems, said that the surge is  “putting daily strain on our ability to care for those who have other urgent medical needs that are not COVID-related.”

If you care about the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who may treat your heart attack, set your broken bones and deliver your baby, please get your COVID shots, they urged.

 Right now, 70% of North Carolinans have at least two doses of the vaccine, but not all age groups are as well protected, with younger adults more likely to opt out. 

Vaccines, the hospital leaders wrote, are “Our best chance of returning to living healthy, normal lives.” 

Many of the patients coming into emergency rooms are unvaccinated and between 18 and 49, younger than in previous waves, Meka Douthit EL, president of the North Carolina Nurses Association, told Cardinal & Pine Friday. Just over half of North Carolinians between 18 and 24 and 62% of those 25 to 49 have gotten at least a single dose of the vaccine, NC data shows. 

Here’s what else you need to know about the Omicron variant this week, and the federal and state response. 

Staffing shortages 

The surge in hospitalizations is creating potential staffing shortages across the state, making care far more complicated and taking a toll on members of the health care community.

“They are inundated,” said Douthit EL, who is also a director at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro. 

Out of 130 North Carolina hospitals,14 reported this week that they faced critical staffing shortages or are expected to within a week, according to data maintained by the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

Right now, hospitals are able to adapt to the surge, NC health officials say, but may not for long if the current rates continue. 

More Tests on the Way

The Biden Administration has announced plans to provide up to a billion more free rapid tests  to the public. 

Starting Wednesday, you’ll be able to order tests on a new website, COVIDTests.gov

The White House said the tests would ship within 7 to 12 days of ordering.  

In addition, private insurers will need to start covering rapid tests, starting this weekend.

Milder than Delta Doesn’t Mean Mild

The omicron variant continues to show evidence that it’s not as severe as the Delta variant on a person-to-person basis. But that can cause a false sense of security in a general public desperate for permission to put the last two years behind them.

Omicron is perhaps milder than Delta, but it’s still very serious.

“The truth is, we’re still in the emergency phase of the pandemic, and everyone who is downplaying that should probably take a tour of a hospital before they do,” Jeremy Faust, a Massachusetts emergency physician told Ed Yong of the Atlantic. 

The emergency phase may be here awhile.

Though there are some early signs that the omicron surge may be peaking in some US cities, North Carolina is still in the thick of it. And since hospitalizations and deaths lag about two to three weeks behind case numbers, health officials say, relief is not imminent. 

A surge of this magnitude two years into an exhausting pandemic, Douthit El said, was a little like being asked to run 100-yard sprints after finishing a marathon. 

“When your cup is overrunning,” she said, “it’s just hard, it’s burnout, it’s frustration, it’s anger, it’s all of that.” 

Nurses, she added, are grappling with how to ”set that aside and be the very best that I can be at this time, to deliver the care that is needed to those precious people that are coming in.

“And then we just ask for a little understanding.”