Europe Struggles to Meet Demand in Hospitals as Omicron Causes Massive Staff Shortages

Hospitals in Europe are struggling to keep up with the influx of COVID-19 patients seeking care as the Omicron variant is infecting health care workers creating massive staffing shortages.

On January 7, 2022, the World Health Organization reported a record 9.5 million COVID-19 cases across the world over the past week.

"In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick that it is overwhelming health systems around the world," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Europe is struggling with a large number of cases from the fast-spreading Omicron variant and it's straining the health care systems. France reported the highest single-day record for confirmed cases in Europe with 332,252 new infections on Wednesday.

French officials recently allowed health care workers infected with COVID-19 to forgo isolation and continue treating patients if they have little to no symptoms and are fully vaccinated.

The U.K. reported almost 180,000 new cases on Thursday and they recently changed its quarantine rules to limit the amount of time people need to stay in isolation after testing positive.

London deployed about 200 military personnel to hospitals to help cover their "exceptional" staffing shortages after England reported an increased 59 percent in staff members taking time off because of COVID-19.

The National Health Service in England said a total of 39,142 NHS hospital workers were not working on January 2 because of the virus.

Europe Hospitals Struggle With COVID-19
A nurse watches a patient infected with the COVID-19 at the intensive care unit of the Timone hospital in Marseille, France, on January 5, 2022. France set a record for new Covid cases over a 24-hour period on January 5, 2022, with 335,000 additional infections recorded, Health Minister Olivier Veran told parliament. Nicholas Tucat/ AFP/Getty Images

While Omicron seems less severe than the delta variant it has swiftly replaced, especially among people who have been vaccinated, Ghebreyesus cautioned against treating it lightly.

"Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people, and it's killing people," he said.

Next week, another 150 troops will help an ambulance service in northwest England.

Germany's leaders were set to consider possible new restrictions and changes to quarantine rules on Friday.

The Netherlands has been in a strict lockdown for weeks, a move designed to ease pressure on overburdened hospitals and buy time for a slow-starting vaccination booster campaign to gather pace. Despite the lockdown, infections hit record numbers in the country this week.

In Palermo, Sicily, auxiliary facilities were set up in front of three hospitals to relieve the pressure on emergency rooms and to allow ambulance crews to get patients into beds instead of waiting in the parking lot.

Staff in white medical overalls and masks pushed gurneys from ambulances into the tents.

Tiziana Maniscalichi, director of Cervello and Civico Palermo hospitals, said most of those hospitalized with serious symptoms were not vaccinated.

"We are absolutely under pressure," Maniscalichi told The Associated Press. "There are at least 70 new cases a day to be hospitalized. We were forced to set up an additional emergency unit in a tent, because the capacity of the ordinary emergency unit was not enough."

Italy is reporting record daily new coronavirus infections, hitting 219,000 new cases on Thursday. Authorities believe the peak in this surge is still two to three weeks away.

The hospital system already is swamped in the southern Italian city of Naples.

"We risk the collapse of the national healthcare service," said the head of the local hospital doctors' association, Bruno Zuccarelli.

"We could be seeing a repeat of the scenes of October and November 2020 which were very, very dangerous," he added.

Greece's government on Friday issued a civil mobilization order that will take effect next Wednesday and obliges some doctors in the private sector to support the state health service during an Omicron-driven surge in four northern regions where state hospitals are suffering acute staffing shortages.

Omicron's advance has forced many workers to stay home and prompted the government to send in the troops.

Health service leaders said the military deployment highlighted how the country is battling to stay on top of the pandemic.

"We have never known this level of staff absence before," Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, told Sky News.

Air Commodore John Lyle told the BBC that the military remains in discussions about providing support for the NHS in other parts of the country besides the capital.

Nagpaul urged action to bring down infections and better protect health care workers against the Omicron variant, saying it was important that "the government doesn't just wait to ride this out, because every day people are suffering."

In Naples, doctors' leader Zuccarelli said the mutations in the virus since Italy was hammered in the first wave in 2020 means children and even babies are now being hospitalized with COVID-19.

"The virus adapts to the environment, we have to make the habitat impossible for it, and to do that you absolutely have to vaccinate," he said. "Don't be afraid to vaccinate, you must be afraid of COVID."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

England Ambulances
Paramedics wearing face coverings and PPE wheel a patient on a trolley past ambulances parked outside Leeds General Infirmary hospital in Leeds, northern England on January 5, 2022. British hospitals have switched to a "war footing" due to staff shortages caused by a wave of Omicron infections, the government said Tuesday, as the country's daily COVID caseload breached 200,000 for the first time. Photo by Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images