Omicron is Latest Blow to Pandemic-Weary Frontline Workers

BOSTON — Staff absences for COVID-19 tripled this month in London’s hospitals, and nearly 10% of the city’s firefighters called out sick.

In New York, about 2,700 police officers were absent earlier this week — twice the number who are ill on an average day. And on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, grocery worker Judy Snarsky says she’s stretched to her limit, working 50 hours a week and doing extra tasks because her supermarket has around 100 workers when it should have closer to 150.

“We don’t have enough hands. Everybody is working as much as they physically and mentally can,” the 59-year-old in Mashpee said. “Some of us have been going like a freight train.”
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Worldwide coronavirus cases have risen due to the introduction of the new variant. This is the third anniversary of the outbreak.

The government has taken measures to stop the loss of essential jobs, such as truck drivers and janitors and child care providers. Nurses and other workers fear that a prolonged staff shortage will increase the risk to the public and cause fatigue and burnout among those working in these fields.

Seattle Officer Mike Solan, who leads his city’s police union, said his department is down about 300 officers from its usual force of 1,350.

“It’s difficult for our community because they’re waiting for that call for help,” he said. “And then we’re at risk because we don’t have the proper safe numbers to have a safe working environment when we answer that call for help.”

Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said she and her intensive care unit colleagues never truly had a break from COVID-19, and the arrival of omicron has only reawakened her post-traumatic stress.

“Prior to work, I get really bad anxiety,” she said. “If I’ve been off for two days, I will come back in a panic because I don’t know what I’m walking into.”

Spain, the U.K. and other countries have reduced COVID-19-related quarantines in an effort to reduce staffing problems. They allow people who are positive to be allowed to go back to work faster after they’ve been exposed. Only health care workers in the U.S. were affected by this.

In America, several states, such as Massachusetts, have brought in National Guard personnel to assist in filling the gap in their hospitals and nursing homes. These National Guard officers serve meals and transport patients.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan promised to veto any legislation that would repeal a 4-an-hour hazard wage increase for grocery workers. This has been in effect for almost a year in several West Coast cities like Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Long Beach.

“Now is not the time to roll back the pay for these critical front-line workers,” the Democratic mayor said earlier this week.

Health care unions are concerned that hospitals have failed to adequately fill vacancies and retain staff who were sick from the Pandemic.

For example, there are 1,500 nursing vacancies in New York’s three largest hospitals alone, or about double the number at the onset of the pandemic, said Carl Ginsberg, a spokesman for the 42,000-member New York State Nurses Association.

“There are not enough nurses to do the job right, and so there are situations where the units have dangerous conditions, where patients are in jeopardy,” he said.

In London, the U.K.’s omicron epicenter, a wave of staff absences is hitting hospitals just as COVID-19 admissions have doubled in three weeks. Officials said that the latest wave of staff absences will likely continue until mid-January.

“It wouldn’t take much to cause a crisis,” said David Oliver, a consultant physician at a hospital in southeast England.

Operators of U.S. nursing home are among the people begging for more. They were hit hard by the most severe COVID-19 epidemics in early stages of the pandemic.

While cases in long-term care facilities have not risen sharply yet, the industry is bracing for omicron with 15% fewer workers today than when the pandemic began, said Rachel Reeves, a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association and the ​National Center for Assisted Living, an industry trade group.

Nursing homes historically struggle to compete with other health care operators because their pay rates are effectively fixed by the government, she said, so providers hope President Joe Biden’s administration can boost Medicaid funding and create staff recruitment and retention programs.

“Caregivers are burned out,” Reeves said. “Not only have many experienced tremendous loss, it has been exhausting — physically and emotionally — battling this virus day in and day out.”

Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan provides $350 billion for state and local governments to provide “premium pay” to essential workers. States also use other pandemic fund buckets to boost their workforce.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday that his administration will use $48 million of the state’s remaining CARES Act money on recruiting and training nurses to meet a goal of adding more than 2,000 new nurses over the next four years.

But it’s not just health care systems warning of dire consequences and seeking more support.

Ed Bastian (CEO of Delta Air Lines) was one of those calling on the Biden administration for a reduction in recommended COVID-19 quarantine time to just five days. Otherwise, there will be more disruptions to air travel. As illness takes a toll on crews, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Lufthansa have cancelled many flights in the Christmas period.

The train operators are also warning of unexpected cancellations, and other service problems as commuter and subway lines face COVID-19-related staff shortages.

In the U.K., train company LNER said this week that it’s canceling 16 trains a day until Christmas Eve. Transport for London (which operates the underground and has around 28,000 employees) also warns of delays because 500 COVID-19-related illnesses have prevented them from working.

Even businesses that aren’t essential like nail salons or restaurants are being forced to cut back on hours.

Bret Csencsitz, a Manhattan restaurateur said that the lack of labor caused him to cut back on seating at Gotham and remove staples like burgers or oysters. Gotham reopened last week.

Trophy Brewing in Raleigh, North Carolina, cut operating hours and decided to close three of the business’ four locations early on New Year’s Eve, said David Lockwood, the company’s co-owner.

In Washington, D.C., DogMa Daycare & Boarding For Dogs said this week that it was canceling all day care until Jan. 3 because several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Daniel Schneider, a Harvard professor focused on low-income workers, said the public should keep in mind that essential workers simply don’t have the luxury of working from home, as some Americans do.

“White-collar workers need to appreciate the real risks that these folks take,” he said. “You can’t ring up groceries from home. You can’t stock shelves from home.”


D’Innocenzio reported from Sandwich, Massachusetts, and Calvan reported from New York. The report was co-authored by Bryan Anderson in Raleigh (North Carolina) and Jill Lawless (London); Kelvin Chan in Washington; Mike Sisak; Mike Boak; John Raby; Bryan Anderson; all Associated Press journalists.


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