Omicron disrupts transit, emergency services as workers call out sick: ‘Most people are going to get Covid’

“Many places across the country are getting to the point where even their backup staff are getting sick,” Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said in an interview. She said the strain on frontline workers is worse now than any other point in the pandemic. “Pretty much the whole country right now is feeling this surge of cases that is impacting staffing.”

Hospitals faced a shortage of nurses well before the U.S. first detected the omicron variant in early December. The American Nurses Association in September called on the Biden administration to declare the nursing shortage a national crisis, as the delta variant was surging in many parts of the country at that time.

“The nation’s health care delivery systems are overwhelmed, and nurses are tired and frustrated as this persistent pandemic rages on with no end in sight,” ANA President Ernest Grant said at the time. “Nurses alone cannot solve this longstanding issue and it is not our burden to carry,” Grant said.

The omicron variant now threatens to compound the long-standing staff shortages at hospitals by forcing nurses to call out sick. Although most nurses are fully vaccinated, omicron is able to evade some of the protection provided by the shots, causing more more breakthrough infections around the country.

“The sudden and steep rise in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism and strains on our health-care system,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters at a White House Covid-19 press briefing Wednesday. To help ease potential staffing shortages, the agency last month slashed the isolation time for some health-care workers who get Covid — a controversial move that’s come under fire by nursing groups across the country.

The Biden administration has deployed hundreds of military doctors and nurses to support overwhelmed hospitals and directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide emergency hospital beds and deploy ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients.

Police, fire and transit agencies are also struggling with staffing as omicron forces people to call out sick. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said more than 800 police and firefighters were isolating at home due to positive Covid test results as of last Thursday.

“This is an incredibly tough moment. The omicron variant has taken off like wildfire,” Garcetti said during a press conference.

In New York City, 18% of EMS staff and 13% of firefighters are out sick with Covid as of Tuesday, down from 30% for EMS and 18% for firefighters a few days prior, according to FDNY. The New York City Police Department told CNBC on Tuesday that 12.5% of the force was out sick as of last Friday.

New York’s subway, the nation’s largest, has also suspended service on some lines due to staff shortages caused by omicron. The Chicago Transit Authority, which operates the nation’s second largest public transit system, has also told the public there may be service disruptions as workers calling out sick due to Covid.

The virus is also infecting top city and state officials. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday she tested positive for Covid and will work from home while she isolates with cold-like symptoms. Lightfoot said she was fully vaccinated and boosted. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced early Wednesday that he also tested positive, despite also being fully vaccinated and boosted.

Airlines began canceling flights just before Christmas because omicron infections among staff left them shorthanded. United, JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines, SkyWest and others have trimmed January schedules as Covid cases surge, leaving them without the pilots and other employees they need.

United’s CEO on Monday told staff that 3,000 workers, about 4% of its U.S. workforce, was positive for Covid.

“Just as an example, in one day alone at Newark [New Jersey], nearly one-third of our workforce called out sick,” Scott Kirby said in a staff note.

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate health committee on Tuesday it’s unclear when the omicron wave will peak due to variation in vaccination coverage across the U.S. Fauci said omicron infections may rise in some parts of the country while they peak and fall in others.

“It is a very wily virus,” Fauci told lawmakers at the hearing. “It has fooled everybody all the time — from the time it first came in to delta to now omicron — it’s very unpredictable and we’re doing the best we possibly can.”

— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs and Nate Rattner contributed to this report