Exhausted Health Care Workers Brace for an Omicron Blitz

Just what health care professionals don’t want to hear. Omicron multiplies about 70 times faster than Delta or other COVID-19 variants inside human respiratory tract tissue, says a preprint study.

Look out, here comes Omicron.

Despite all the “we’re not out of the woods yet” warnings, despite the Delta variant’s staying power, despite the refusal of too many Americans to get vaccinated, despite the seeming indecision among health policy makers about just what constitutes a fully vaccinated person, despite concern over another holiday surge—despite all of that and more, the feeling that we might have finally been turning the corner on this horrible pandemic and heading back to normal had begun to settle in.

Maybe, just maybe, health care professionals who’d been working feverishly for the last two years would get a chance to relax, reset, and recharge. The vaccines work, at least to some degree. For the most part they prevent hospitalization and death. It didn’t seem as if any COVID-19 variant could come along and push Delta aside, and the United States had begun coexisting with what many hoped would be a seasonal but, for the most part, not lethal, seasonal occurrence.

Then came Omicron at the end of November. But even here, there seemed to be a silver lining. Initial clinical data indicated that Omicron presents with mild symptoms. Don’t be lulled into complacency, health care experts warn.

Bruce Aylward, MD, a senior adviser with the World Health Organization (WHO),said this week that “we’re concerned that people are jumping to a conclusion that this is a mild disease. A more transmissible virus can do just as much damage—or more—than one which is more severe but less transmissible.”

The damage Aylward referred to involves how already burdened hospitals systems would need to once more fight off a COVID-19 surge with exhausted health care professionals.

Saskia v. Popescu, PHD, MPH, MA, CIC, a member of Infection Control Today®’s (ICT®’s) Editorial Advisory Board, says that “Omicron, while not surprising in its existence, serves as a stark reminder of our global failures to respond to COVID—from vaccine equity, to continued vigilance in infection prevention. These new variants and the surge of cases are a painful and brutal reminder that our exhaustive efforts are still needed despite growing public disinterest in continued COVID efforts.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s general director, warned this week that “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

How much more can infection preventionists (IPs) and other health care professionals take?

As Axios reports this morning, “hospital workers have had little relief from COVID over the past two years. And that burned-out, dispirited workforce is again being overwhelmed by surges from Delta, while facing the specter of yet another wave from Omicron.”

ICT® EAB member Rebecca Leach, MPH, BSN, RN, CIC, says that “IPs are also feeling similar level of burnout and fatigue. Acknowledging those feelings and talking with other IPs or colleagues can help diffuse the stress.”

What doesn’t help is that it’s too early to determine just what we’re up against with Omicron. However, some data released this week give pause. The study has not been peer reviewed. Like most studies, it comes with limitations, such as the fact that the data were collected from experiments on human tissue infected with Omicron, and not on people who’ve actually been infected with the variant.

Still, the bottom line gives pause. Investigators with the University of Hong Kong report that “Omicron SARS-CoV-2 infects and multiplies 70 times faster than the Delta variant and original SARS-CoV-2 in human bronchus, which may explain why Omicron may transmit faster between humans than previous variants.” The study “also showed that the Omicron infection in the lung is significantly lower than the original SARS-CoV-2, which may be an indicator of lower disease severity.”

Leach says IPs will be needed more than ever.

“We all know that the staffing shortage is not going to improve, so we have to focus on ways we can help the frontline stay motivated to take care of patients and keep patient safety as a top priority,” says Leach. “Working with leadership to determine if there are some duties that can be transferred to other teammates so our clinical staff can focus on patients.”

ICT® EAB memberJody Feigel, RN, MSN, says that as health care professionals and “infection preventionists we need to take care of ourselves before we can help others. The simplest and cheapest ways are to exercise(take a walk, yoga, anything to stimulate the body and brain), get outside(fresh air does wonders for our minds and spirit) and deep breathe. Sometimes taking a deep breath is the only break we get in a day.”