With peak coming, healthcare in Europe cracks under rapid spread of Omicron

Despite early studies showing a lower risk of serious illness or hospitalization from Omicron compared to the previously dominant Delta variant, health networks in Spain, Great Britain, Italy and beyond have failed. found in increasingly desperate circumstances.

Britain on Friday began deploying military personnel to support hospitals facing staffing shortages and extreme pressure amid record cases of COVID-19 in the country.

“Omicron means more patients to treat and less staff to treat them,” Professor Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service (NHS), said in a statement.

In the United States, hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds, while Spain’s primary health care network is so strained that the penultimate day of 2021, authorities in the northeast region of Aragon authorized the reincorporation of retired medical and nursing personnel.

“The exponential increase in cases means that primary care cannot properly carry out its contact tracing and vaccination campaign tasks, nor its regular activities,” authorities said in a statement.

Frontline workers such as nurses and physiotherapists are hit hardest, said the Spanish nurses union SATSE, citing the example of Andalusia where they made up more than 30% of staff on COVID-related leave in the second half of December.

The sunny southern region, where the British and Germans have settled in droves, recorded around 1,000 workers infected with the coronavirus in the last few weeks of the year, “generating serious service coverage problems”, according to the press release.


In the Netherlands, infection rates are also on the rise among hospital staff, especially nurses and nursing assistants, Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday following a survey of eight major hospitals.

In the worst-case scenario, one in four has tested positive as Christmas approaches, such as at the Amsterdam University Medical Center where 25% of staff now test positive, up from 5% a week ago.

Dutch hospitals are considering changing their quarantine rules so that infected staff who have no symptoms can come to work, De Telegraaf said, as the number of daily Dutch cases breaks records despite a strict lockdown since December 19.

In Italy, the problem of infected health workers – more than 12,800 according to data collected last week – is aggravated by the suspension of doctors, nurses and administrative staff who are not vaccinated and represent just over 4% of the population. total workforce.


In a final attempt to fill service gaps, Italian health agencies are freezing staff leave, postponing it to other times and freezing or postponing scheduled surgeries not classified as “urgent”.

With hospitalizations already at their highest level since last February, the NHS is expected to be stretched even further as COVID-19 rises among the elderly, UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said on Friday.

“We are still seeing an increase in hospitalizations, especially with an increase in the rate of cases in the older age groups. This is worrying, ”Javid said in a clip released. “I think we have to be honest… when we look at the NHS it’s going to be a tough few weeks ahead.”

On average, around 80,000 medical staff were absent from work every weekday until January 2 – the most recent period for which data is available – a 13% increase from the previous week, according to the NHS England. Almost half of those absences, or 44%, were due to COVID-19, an increase of more than a fifth from the previous week.

Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of the Bilbao Institute for Health and Strategy and a former senior WHO official, said Spain had not taken sufficient steps to bolster vital services and that the pressure would continue to rise for several weeks.

“Spain has several weeks – virtually the entire month of January – of increasing cases… and then we hope to reach a plateau that will come down just as quickly,” he told Reuters.

He considers it unlikely that a more infectious variant that is also more deadly than Omicron will emerge and is optimistic that the current wave could signal the start of the end of the pandemic.

“Pandemics don’t end with a huge boom, but with small waves, because many have been infected or vaccinated… After Omicron, we shouldn’t have to worry about more than small waves. “

(Reporting by Clara-Laeila Laudette, Nathan Allen and Inti Landauro in Madrid, Alistair Smout in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in Amsterdam; writing by Clara-Laeila Laudette; editing by Kirsten Donovan)

Edward K. Thompson