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A World Health Organization official warned last week of a “closing window of opportunity” for European countries to prevent their health care systems from being overwhelmed as the omicron variant produces near-vertical growth in coronavirus infections. In France, Britain and Spain, nations with comparatively strong national health programs, that window may already be closed, as non-COV patients pay the price for Europe’s strict COVID-19 protocols.

The director of an intensive care unit at a hospital in Strasbourg is turning non-COV patients away. A surgeon at a London hospital describes a critical delay in a man’s cancer diagnosis. Spain is seeing its determination to prevent a system collapse tested as omicron keeps medical personnel off work.

“There are a lot of patients we can’t admit, and it’s the non-COVID patients who are the collateral victims of all this,” said Dr. Julie Helms, who runs the ICU at Strasbourg University Hospital in far eastern France.

Two years into the pandemic, with the exceptionally contagious omicron impacting public services of various kinds, the variant’s effect on medical facilities has many reevaluating the resilience of public health systems that are considered essential to providing equal care.

The problem, experts say, is that few health systems built up enough flexibility to handle a crisis like the coronavirus before it emerged, while repeated infection spikes have kept the rest too preoccupied to implement changes during the long emergency.

Hospital admissions per capita right now are as high in France, Italy and Spain as they were last spring, when the three countries had lockdowns or other restrictive measures in place. England’s hospitalization rate of people with COVID-19 for the week ending Jan. 9 was slightly higher than it was in early February 2021, before most residents were vaccinated.

This time, there are no lockdowns. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a population health research organization based at the University of Washington, predicts that more than half of the people in WHO Europe’s 53-country region will be infected with omicron within two months.

That includes doctors, nurses and technicians at public hospitals.

About 15% of the Strasbourg hospital system’s staff of 13,000 was out this week. In some hospitals, the employee absentee rate is 20%. Schedules are made and reset to plug gaps; patients whose needs aren’t critical must wait.

Omicron exposes inflexibility of Europe’s public hospitals  Associated Press


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