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COVID hospitalizations plateau in some parts of the US, while a crisis remains in others

Dr. James Samuel Pope takes off his PPE as he exits the room of a patient who is suffering from the effects of Covid-19 in the ICU at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 18, 2022.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Fewer people in the United States are being admitted to hospitals with the coronavirus than a week ago, suggesting that the record-breaking surge in hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant could soon decline, following recent case trends. But the country remains far from the end of the omicron wave, and in many areas it could be weeks before the strain on hospitals subsides.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus nationwide and those sick enough to require intensive care remain at or near record levels. In much of the West, in parts of the Midwest and in more rural areas of the country, where omicron surges have hit later, cases and hospitalizations are still growing significantly.

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Indeed, most of the decrease in new hospital admissions has so far been in areas that experienced omicron outbreaks earliest. Omicron reached many metropolitan areas in the eastern half of the country before it became the dominant variant nationwide, and hospitalizations jumped quickly in the Northeast and the South before the new year. Now, hospitalizations are beginning to level off in the Northeast in particular.

Hospitalizations in the Midwest are also plateauing, but the region still has high numbers of people in intensive care. That is in part because Midwestern hospitals were already stretched thin by the delta variant surge when omicron arrived in early December.

In Southern states, hospitalizations and intensive-care-unit rates were among the lowest in the country just before omicron, but they have sharply risen with the latest wave.

The percentage of hospitalized patients requiring ICU beds is still significantly lower than that during previous waves, in part because omicron seems to be less severe overall than earlier variants. Vaccinated people, and especially people who have received a booster shot, are much less likely to be hospitalized or need intensive care.

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The hospitalization numbers also include people who test positive for the virus after coming to the hospital for other ailments, or so-called incidental cases. Still, experts have warned that even mild cases of the virus can be worrisome if patients have other health conditions. And the care required for these patients, as well as keeping vulnerable people at the hospital isolated from COVID-19 patients, put further strain on doctors and nurses.

With health care workers out sick with omicron themselves and the virus compounding preexisting staff shortages, hospitals have less capacity to care for patients than before. And fewer staffed beds available means a smaller number of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm a hospital.

The number of staffed hospital and ICU beds available has steadily been declining since November 2020, when the data was first reliably tracked nationally. There are now 4% fewer staffed hospital beds available and 7% fewer staffed ICU beds.

Some states have had bigger declines. Thirteen states — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin — have lost more than 10% of their staffed hospital and ICU beds. A few states — New Jersey, New Mexico, Florida, Vermont — and Puerto Rico have increased their ICU and hospital capacity.

Stretched to the limit by wave after wave of the virus, health care workers have been quitting at record rates. About 3% of health care workers quit their jobs in November, a number not seen since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began calculating the data in 2000, as workers leave their positions for better pay, early retirement or to transition to another industry.

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The number of open job postings for nurses in the United States is nearing almost double what it was before the pandemic, according to data from the Indeed Hiring Lab.

All of this means the strain on many local hospitals is far from over. COVID-19 hospitalizations remain higher in every state than they were two weeks ago, and 12 states had more people hospitalized this week than they did at last winter’s peak.

Still, the drop in new hospital admissions in parts of the country with the earliest omicron outbreaks is a welcome sign for hospitals there — and for others currently pushed to the brink by the extremely transmissible variant.