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COVID-19 hospitalizations reach new peak in New York City


We turn now to New York City again where the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 has tripled since Christmas. This surge from the omicron variant is serious. It's exhausting. But it is different from the chaos and fear that ensued back in the spring of 2020, when New York City struggled with the first major outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S. Caroline Lewis of member station WNYC is here to help explain what's different this time around.

Hi, Caroline.

CAROLINE LEWIS, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So can you just tell us how bad is it right now at New York City hospitals?

LEWIS: Well, hospitals are definitely feeling a strain. The patients with COVID who are coming in aren't as sick as they were in spring 2020, but patient volumes are going up, and that's happening at the same time that a lot of hospital staff are out with COVID themselves, having to isolate. And that's on top of health care workers having left their jobs during the pandemic. I spoke to one nurse who described a pretty extreme situation at a hospital in Brooklyn. She said they didn't have enough staff and that not all the patients were getting regular check-ins by assigned nurses. And so then when staff did go check on those patients, they found a man who had somehow removed his BiPap. That's like a face mask delivering oxygen. And he didn't have a pulse.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

LEWIS: And they were able to revive him and intubate him, but she was very shaken by the situation.

CHANG: Wow. OK, so how are hospitals trying to fix the staffing issues right now?

LEWIS: Well, hospitals are hiring temp and travel nurses to fill in in a lot of cases. You know, it's definitely become more common during the pandemic to rely on this kind of flexible work force. But I think it has started to create some tension with full-time employees. I spoke to Sean Petty who is a nurse in the pediatric emergency room at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx.

SEAN PETTY: But now you have a situation where you have, like, five experienced nurses left to train 10 new ones, you know, all at the same time during a pandemic, you know, where those five nurses are taking care of twice the amount of patients they did a month ago.

LEWIS: So I think it's worth noting that during the first wave, his unit was basically empty. But now there are more children being hospitalized with COVID and more kids and adults who are still getting other types of care. You know, during the first wave, all that other care besides COVID pretty much stopped.

CHANG: Right. OK, so hiring temps and travel nurses - I mean, it doesn't sound like a perfect solution, but is it at least getting hospitals through this?

LEWIS: I think it's definitely one of those situations where it matters what hospital you're talking about. Travel nurses get paid two or three times as much as a full-time employee because that's what their agencies charge. So some hospitals are able to cover those costs, and others just don't have the resources. Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn has experienced some pretty bad staffing shortages lately. You know, that's a safety net hospital that mostly serves low-income patients. But it's not a public hospital, so it's not getting emergency aid from the city. The CEO, LaRay Brown, told me a lot of full-time staff have left during the pandemic.

LARAY BROWN: There have been many folks who've retired - right? - who are just exhausted and getting out of nursing care.

LEWIS: And she said the cost of hiring temporary workers has made it hard to pay other bills.

BROWN: We have other vendors for equipment supplies that we might not be able to pay them or may have to pay them many months late.

LEWIS: So I think this is something we saw early on in the pandemic as well, that there's a big divide in New York City not just between rich and poor communities, but also rich and poor hospitals.

CHANG: Absolutely. That is Caroline Lewis of WNYC.

Thank you, Caroline.

LEWIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Lewis