The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration. For those of us working in healthcare, it has been anything but. This time of year has been particularly stressful for all of us. As the new year begins, those of us manning the hospitals are bracing ourselves for a very dark winter.

Even pre-COVID, winter was a time of higher patient volumes as colds and the seasonal flu caused many to seek care in emergency rooms. While previously this would strain our healthcare system, the omicron variant has produced something new entirely. Given its high infectivity rate, the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has led to a huge increase in the number of people infected. This new, highly virulent virus came at the worst time; a time of year when people often remain indoors and gather together for the holiday season.

The emergence of the Omicron variant has come at a time when hospitals are having difficulty maintaining adequate staffing levels. Healthcare workers at all levels, but particularly nurses, are quitting. What this means is that hospitals are having to scale back how many patients they can care for on their units. Hospitals may have plenty of beds to receive patients but without proper staff those beds must lie empty.

This perfect storm of higher patient volumes and less staff is straining hospitals. As an emergency room physician, I have watched helplessly as our waiting room balloons with sick patients while we have no beds to treat them. Yet, my experience is not unique. This problem is not limited to one hospital or one area. Hospitals across our state and across the country are struggling.

The current situation is, quite frankly, untenable. Already, hospitals across our state are reverting to emergency standards of care. This allows them to do things like postpone surgeries and increase their patient to staff ratios. While this may seem logical, remember, this is something hospitals do only as a last resort when other measures have failed and the number of hospitals across our state changing to these standards should worry us all.

As dire as the situation may seem, there are things that you, the lay public, can do to help those of us in healthcare. The first is to only seek care at a hospital if you are genuinely concerned for your health. Coming to the ER because you are concerned about your chest pain or your trouble breathing is very reasonable. Yet, I have seen many patients who are coming to the hospital just to get a COVID test. While many of these patients are not sick, they still require dedicated staffing and resources that could be better served on sicker patients. Plus, if they do turn out to be positive then they have exposed not just staff but everyone in the waiting room.

Additionally, please manage your medical conditions. Remember, it’s not just COVID patients who are straining hospitals. Strokes, heart attacks and asthma exacerbations still occur whether

there is a pandemic or not. Making sure your chronic medical conditions like your asthma and high blood pressure are well controlled may be what keeps you out of the hospital.

This winter will be a trying time. It will see our hospitals and our healthcare system tested in a way it has never been before. I will not lie to you: the situation is dire and will likely get worse before it gets better. Yet, I am asking you, please do what you can to ease the strain on us. Every person we can keep out of the hospitals right now is, not without exaggeration, a matter of life and death.

The views represented here are those solely of the author.

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