A wave of infections is spreading across North America, straining the already overburdened healthcare system and pushing healthcare workers to their limits. COVID-19 combined with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza form the “triple threat” creating deadly and unsustainable conditions in both children’s and adult hospitals.
The latest data shows that average daily COVID-19 cases in the US have increased by nearly 40 percent over the past two weeks, with deaths also up by 25 percent. And just about two months into the traditional flu season, cases and hospitalizations have already far exceeded pre-pandemic numbers.
Many hospitals are at over 100 percent capacity. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are struggling to manage the deluge of patients pouring through emergency room doors, many of whom require hospital beds. Nursing homes are also understaffed and many residents are being stalked by respiratory viruses.
A West Coast Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), who wished to remain anonymous, summarized the situation she and her colleagues face at a long-term care facility in an interview with World Socialist Web Site Reporter.
This CNA said, “COVID everywhere, flu everywhere, every other head cold stomach bug imaginable everywhere… I’m doing my best but at the same time counting down the days until I’ll inevitably get sick or try to care for someone.” and realize they are dead. My residents range in age from 70 to 95, but that’s no reason to ignore the final chapter of their lives and how they pass, and I’ve heard numerous colleagues in recent days refer to my wing as ‘Death Row’ .”
These conditions are a direct result of the government’s disastrous health and pandemic policies. The non-scientific decision to drop the minimal protective measures – such as masking, isolation and contact tracing – as well as the opening of schools and the return to face-to-face work has increased infections and reinfections. Some of the country’s most vulnerable are particularly affected: children, the elderly, as well as the chronically ill and immunocompromised.
Despite President Biden’s declaration that “the pandemic is over,” COVID-19 hospitalization rates and deaths are currently rising, according to recent data from Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. This data shows the median 7-day hospitalizations at 40,413, versus a 7-day median of 27,880 hospitalizations during Thanksgiving week.
Deaths are also rising from a 7-day average of 299 deaths during Thanksgiving week to the current 7-day average of 425 deaths. All of those numbers are likely underestimated because many states are no longer tracking daily deaths and cases, or don’t regularly report numbers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Over the past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already poor healthcare conditions. The ongoing fight on the front lines – without a systematic approach to containing the virus through basic public health measures – has burned out workers and pushed many to abandon healthcare altogether.
Healthcare workers across the country and from all disciplines spoke to WSWS reporters on social media. Many shared similar themes of burnout, supply shortages and anger at inequality in the healthcare sector, where CEOs continue to live comfortably while workers bear the brunt of the crisis and are left to their own devices, living with exhaust fumes and taking the wages behind rising inflation.
A nurse from the Southern United States, who wished to remain anonymous, painted a picture of the actual damage caused by understaffing and overcrowding in hospitals. She told the WSWS, “There are so many stories. I recently came to see a post-dialysis patient who had blood draining from his line. The patient was “discontinued” without. [a] Bedside report because the nurse had six other patients and the dialysis nurse had to return to her patient who was being monitored by another nurse who had two patients running.”
A Canadian nurse currently working at a long-term care facility described her daily conditions. She said: “Tonight I will be the only nurse in a two-story building with 95 residents. I have two HCAs [health care assistants] on one floor and three on the other.
“COVID-wise we just got through our third or fourth outbreak. We don’t test people like we used to. There are currently many residents with symptoms, but those who test them are negative. We had to send two [hospital] in less than 24 hours, one with pneumonia and I don’t know about the second. I had to send them off at 6:45 this morning.”
When asked about burnout, she replied, “We weren’t prepared for a pandemic. … Our first outbreak … lasted over a month and we lost nearly a quarter of our residents. We were running low on supplies, ambulances were overloaded, even other nursing homes had to call the military or someone for help. There were times when I was the sole nurse for the building with three HCAs. … Since COVID we have always been understaffed. We’ve always run out of those drugs, those antibiotics, those supplies. After a few years of that, we burned out. The staff is leaving, which further exacerbates the shortage crisis.”
When asked to illustrate the patient safety issues caused by these conditions, she shared, “You have no idea how resident care is being impacted. The day and evening nurses are also overwhelmed and, moreover, so short staffed that they cannot properly take care of the residents. … I get down and they are in critical condition or already dead. I have had to send several people to the hospital with sepsis or even serious infections. Some never made it back.”
The once-ubiquitous praise for “healthcare heroes” has proved empty as healthcare workers continue to struggle through new levels of exhaustion and fight a third year on the front lines while hospital directors and politicians mark the apparent end of the pandemic.
A letter from 33 medical groups to the Biden administration in mid-November painted a devastating picture of the crisis gripping emergency rooms across the country. Doctors and nurses have called for urgent action to deal with the crisis, where emergency rooms are overcrowded and overflowing with patients waiting to be seen, and hospitals are overwhelmed with no beds available for critically ill patients.
It is not surprising that these appeals fell on deaf ears, because the current situation is the result of years and decades of conscious politics by the established parties. Healthcare workers also discussed the irrationality of for-profit healthcare with WSWS reporters.
Another RN, who chose to remain anonymous, commented on a thread about the current surge in the “triple disease”. “This is the part where our healthcare system is now going to be accelerating towards collapse. Working conditions, pay, etc. have been disastrous in these positions for decades. The C-suite has gobbled up all profits/raises and given next to nothing to the actual workers… while they are removed from the dangers (dangerous exposure to every imaginable disease, radiation, violence, etc.) and raking in 6 to 7-figure salaries. “
He continued, “There are no serious attempts to fix anything nationwide. People are dying due to lack of access to healthcare, healthcare workers are being driven into suicide/PTSD/mental breakdown/burnout, and those with the power to do anything are doing…nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact, as the C-suite/insurance companies/administrations continue to exploit and exploit healthcare workers. Unless we take absolute emergency measures as a nation, I cannot express how much suffering, needless death and, quite frankly, societal damage will continue to occur and accelerate to dystopian levels.”
TJ, a Northeast ER technician, expressed a similar level of burnout and disdain for the for-profit healthcare system. “As far as workers go right now, I feel like we’re at a tipping point,” TJ said. “Healthcare has astronomical burnout rates and people fleeing the field. I think about a third of healthcare workers have left the field since the pandemic began. That’s not sustainable. It comes from a mixture of moral injury and overwork. In a for-profit healthcare system, you cannot maximize profits by planning ahead and increasing staff and beds. That cuts the bottom line.”
A radiology manager in Oklahoma echoed these views. “For many years, hospitals have been downsizing and leaning to reduce costs and increase revenue at the expense of patient safety. This simmered beneath the surface, but when COVID happened it exposed the downside of healthcare. This spike was predictable, but if you’re still trying to dig your way out of the COVID hole, how can you really be prepared?
“The healthcare system is extremely broken. It has become profit over people. The “do more with less” mentality is why I think so many people have left the field during COVID. Healthcare is selfless service, but if we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will?”
It is the working class in all industries that must and does defend itself. Around the globe, opposition is growing to tightening austerity measures, COVID “let it rip” policies, unbearable workloads and more. In the UK, tens of thousands of NHS workers are joining the latest in a growing wave of strikes by healthcare workers, protesting their deteriorating working conditions and fighting for the right to guarantee quality, free healthcare for all and an end to its accelerated privatisation.
Hospital overcrowding is an indictment of the capitalist system and its treatment of society’s most vulnerable. It points to the need to remove the profit motive from healthcare, which in turn is linked to the struggle for genuine socialized healthcare that prioritizes the medical needs of patients and defends the conditions of healthcare workers.
To advance this struggle, health workers must be organized independently of the union apparatus, their corporate supporters, and the two big business parties. More than ever, the formation of grassroots committees in all areas of healthcare is an urgent necessity.