Omicron is the latest blow to pandemic-weary frontline workers

BOSTON (AP), by ZEHRA KARAKAN - Staff absences for COVID-19 tripled in London's hospitals this month, with nearly 10% of London's firefighters being called out sick.

Omicron is the latest blow to pandemic-weary frontline workers


New York's 2,700 police officers were absent this week, twice the amount of those who are sick on an average day. Judy Snarsky, a grocery worker on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, says she has been working more than 50 hours per week. She also does extra work because her supermarket employs 100 people instead of 150.

"We don’t have enough hands." Mashpee, 59, said that everyone is doing their best to be as productive as possible. "Some of us have been moving like a freight train."

As the pandemic enters its third-year, the worldwide rise in coronavirus infections caused by the new omicron strain is a blow to hospitals, police and other critical operations that are struggling to keep a full staff of workers.

The government has taken steps to stop the loss of essential jobs, such as truck drivers and janitors and child care providers and train conductors. Nurses and other workers fear that a prolonged staffing crisis will increase the risk to the public and cause fatigue and burnout among their ranks.

Seattle Officer Mike Solan is the leader of his city's police union. He said that his department has lost 300 officers to its 1,350-member normal force.

He said, "It's hard for our community because it's waiting for that call to help." "Then we are at risk because we don’t have enough safe numbers to ensure a safe environment for those who answer the call for help."

Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx said that she and her colleagues from the intensive care unit never had a break with COVID-19 and that the arrival of omicron only has reactivated her post-traumatic stress.

She said that she experiences severe anxiety prior to going to work. "I will panic if I have been away for more than two days because I don’t know what I’m going into."

To ease staff shortages, countries such as Spain and the U.K. reduced COVID-19 quarantines. This allowed people to return to work sooner after being tested positive or having been exposed to the virus. Similar measures were taken by the U.S. for health care workers.

In the meantime, the U.S. has called in hundreds to fill in gaps in nursing homes and hospitals. They transport patients, serve meals and do other nonclinical tasks.

Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle has pledged to veto legislation that would repeal a $4-an hour hazard pay increase for grocery workers. This has been in effect for almost a year in several West Coast cities including Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Long Beach, California.

The Democratic mayor stated earlier this week that "now is not the right time to reduce the pay for these crucial front-line workers."

Unions representing health workers complain that too many hospitals fail to fill vacancies or retain pandemic-weary employees.

According to Carl Ginsberg (a spokesperson for the 42,000-member New York State Nurses Association), there are currently 1,500 nursing positions in New York's three largest hospitals. This is about twice the number when the pandemic began.

He stated that there were not enough nurses to do the job correctly, so there are dangerous situations in which units are operating, putting patients at risk.

London is the U.K.'s Omicron Epicenter. A wave of staff absences has hit hospitals as COVID-19 admissions doubled in three short weeks. Officials said that the latest surge will likely continue until mid-January.

David Oliver, a consultant doctor at a hospital in southeast England, said that it wouldn't take much for a crisis to occur.

Operators of U.S. nursing home are among those asking for more from officials after they were hit by the most severe COVID-19 epidemics in the early stages of the pandemic.

Although long-term care facility cases have not increased sharply, the industry is bracing for omicron, with 15% fewer workers now than when the pandemic started, according to Rachel Reeves (a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association, and the National Center for Assisted Living), an industry trade association.

She said that nursing homes have struggled to compete with other health care providers because their pay rates were effectively fixed by government. Providers hope President Joe Biden will increase Medicaid funding and create retention and recruitment programs.

Reeves stated that caregivers are exhausted. "Many have suffered tremendous loss and it has been exhausting -- emotionally and physically -- to fight this virus day after day."

Biden's $1.9 Trillion coronavirus relief program provides $350 billion to state and local governments for "premium wages" to essential workers. To bolster their workforce, states are also using pandemic funds from other sources.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday that his administration would use $48 Million of the remaining CARES Act money to recruit and train nurses in order to reach the goal of more than 2,000 nurses within the next four-years.

It's not only the health care system that warns of dire consequences.

Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines CEO, has called upon the Biden administration for a reduction in recommended COVID-19 quarantine time to just five days. Otherwise, there will be more disruptions to air travel. Because of illness, Delta, United and Lufthansa cancelled dozens upon flights during the Christmas period.

Also, train operators warn of unexpected cancellations and other service problems as commuter and subway lines are affected by COVID-19-related staff shortages.

LNER, the U.K.'s train company, announced this week that 16 trains would be cancelled each day up to Christmas Eve. Transport for London, which runs the subway system and has around 28,000 employees, warned of delays due to 500 COVID-19-related illnesses.

Even small businesses like nail salons and restaurants, which aren't necessarily essential, will be reducing their hours or temporarily closing down if there are worker shortages.

Bret Csencsitz, a Manhattan restaurateur, said that the labor shortage forced him to reduce seating at Gotham and remove staples like burgers or oysters from the menu. Gotham reopened last month.

Trophy Brewing, Raleigh, North Carolina, has cut operating hours and decided that it would close three of its four locations by New Year's Eve. David Lockwood, co-owner, stated that the company had closed three of its four locations.

DogMa Daycare & Boarding For Dogs in Washington, D.C. announced this week that all day care would be cancelled until January 3, because of several COVID-19-positive staff members.

Professor Daniel Schneider from Harvard focuses on low-income workers. He said that the public needs to remember that essential workers don't have the luxury or ability to work remotely like some Americans.

He said that white-collar workers must be aware of the risks they take. You can't order groceries at home. Stock shelves at home is not possible.

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