WASHINGTON — The surge in COVID cases already has overwhelmed hospitals and caused thousands of canceled airline flights because of worker infections and quarantines. Now, other vital public services and industries are bracing for impact from an Omicron wave that is expected to significantly slow the nation’s economy over the coming weeks.
As in past COVID spikes, short-staffed schools, child care centers, home health care services, and transit systems are among those vulnerable to disruptions.
“We have managed through all the previous very challenging waves to mostly stay open, but … we are getting crushed,” said Laura Perille, chief executive of Nurtury Early Education, which operates four child care centers in Greater Boston. Eight of its 25 classrooms were closed at one point in December because of COVID, more than at any other time in the pandemic, and several more would have been shuttered this week if the centers weren’t already closed for the holidays, she said.
“I’m very concerned about what Monday will bring when we reopen,” Perille said. “We will continue doing our best with health screening, masking, onsite testing, and everything we have been doing and know how to do, but particularly now we need all kinds of additional support from the state.”
The challenge of keeping essential services available and the potential economic toll of the Omicron wave were factors in this week’s decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the recommended quarantine period for people with asymptomatic COVID cases to five days from 10 days, director Rochelle Walensky told The Washington Post. The move came after the CDC last week reduced the recommended isolation time for health care workers who test positive for COVID.
“There were starting to be limitations in society, not just in our health care workforce but in other parts of society,” Walensky said. “We were seeing infections in many places that we realized this could be a harbinger of many other essential workers we needed.”
Those new CDC recommendations will help lessen the economic damage from this latest COVID spike, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research and consulting firm.
Still, he has significantly lowered his estimate for economic growth in the first three months of 2022 — to a 2.2 percent annual rate from 5.2 percent. Zandi is expecting a strong bounce back in the second quarter that would keep growth for the year on track for the 4 percent he had forecast before Omicron took off.
“Over the past two years, it feels like each wave we suffer is less disruptive to the health care system and the economy than the previous wave,” he said. “That goes to the nature of the variant, but it also goes more importantly to our ability to adjust to what’s going on. I am assuming that pattern continues.”
If it doesn’t and Omicron turns out to last longer and be more virulent than public health experts are predicting, Zandi said, the economic toll could increase.
“The disruptions become really problematic for the economy if hospitals get overwhelmed and local governments and state government decide they need to start shutting down activity or reimposing various rules around social distancing, and how many people can be in restaurants or bars … or schools start to shut down because kids are getting sick,” Zandi said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the goal is to keep schools open, but she anticipates there will have to be some closures because “there’s too much Omicron” and not enough staff.
“Everyone’s intent is for the schools to remain open for in-person learning as long as that can be done safely,” she said. COVID testing is a key to that, but the capability is in such short supply that she and her staff spent Wednesday and Thursday on the phone trying to obtain rapid tests and get them to local teachers unions.
“It’s going to be fraught in the next few weeks,” Weingarten said.
Schools are so short on staff that some states are trying to expand the pool of substitute teachers. In Massachusetts, state Senator Ed Kennedy, a Lowell Democrat, introduced legislation last week to remove pension restrictions on retired teachers for the next two years to allow them to work as substitutes. The proposal is unlikely to help with the Omicron wave, but Kennedy is hoping the state Legislature quickly approves the measure in preparation for the next wave.
“I think it’s really imperative we do everything we can to keep the schools open through the rest of the pandemic,” Kennedy said.
But anxiety is high in school districts as they get ready to return next week from the holiday break, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“It was barely manageable,” he said of coping with staff shortages this fall. “Now with what’s going on with the spike, I think everybody’s anxious about where this is all going to go and whether we have enough people to fill the gap when we see additional absences in the coming months.”
Home health care is another area of concern because of persistent staff shortages that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And there aren’t a lot of options to deal with increased worker absences with Omicron.
“It’s a lot different than the airlines that cancel flights,” said William A. Dombi, president of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, which represents 33,000 home health care providers. “People might get stranded or have to find another way to get from point A to point B. But with health care, when a staff member is out, how do you meet the patient’s needs?”
Dombi’s organization has been trying to get federal officials to provide rapid COVID tests, but with no luck so far, he said.
Public transit systems nationwide also have been struggling with worker shortages throughout the pandemic. In Boston, the MBTA cut service on some bus lines in December because it said there weren’t enough drivers. The Omicron variant threatens to worsen those problems and could lead to more service disruptions, said Jim Evers, president of the Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents MBTA bus drivers, train operators, maintenance workers, and other employees.
The union is pushing the MBTA to reopen a testing facility it operated in Everett earlier in the pandemic and is working to get mobile testing vans to some locations where virus cases are increasing. Some maintenance facilities, where employees have to work closely together in groups of up to 10 people, are experiencing more positive COVID cases, Evers said. In addition, MBTA workers can be exposed to the virus on buses and trains because some passengers refuse to wear masks, as they’re required to do, he said.
“It looks as if this is a lot more contagious,” Evers said of Omicron. “I’m seeing an uptick in cases, and I think it’s only going to get worse.”