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Omicron surge fallout: non-COVID patients wait for essential procedures

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The omicron surge is derailing medical care for people dealing with everything from heart disease to cancer. Doctors say many non-COVID patients are suffering because of canceled surgeries and clogged hospitals. NPR's Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: There's no real way to quantify just how many people are sicker because the medical care they need has been delayed or disrupted by the omicron surge. But you can get a sense from doctors like Matt Beecroft, who's seeing this in his emergency department in Seattle, like the patient who was supposed to have cardiac bypass surgery.

MATT BEECROFT: That surgery had been canceled. And they said you need this bypass, but we can't do it right now. Try to do it in a week. Try to do it in a week. And ultimately, she came here with a heart attack.

STONE: Later, when Beecroft mentioned this story to a couple other doctors, he discovered it wasn't an isolated event.

BEECROFT: Between the three of us, we had seen four patients who had had cardiac complications from not being able to get a cardiac surgery.

STONE: It's just one example of the fallout from the omicron surge. ICUs are full and hospitals short staffed, so many non-COVID patients are stuck waiting for essential procedures.

BEECROFT: Every day I work, I could tell you another tragic story of someone whose care has been delayed. It can be heartbreaking.

STONE: Omicron has forced hospitals all over the U.S. to postpone so-called elective procedures, which really just means they're scheduled. Eric Stecker, a cardiologist at Oregon Health and Science University, says the term elective is a misnomer in his world.

ERIC STECKER: For some cardiovascular conditions, delaying elective care by two weeks to three months can really adversely impact patients.

STONE: Here's one example - patients who have a problem with their aortic heart valve. Stecker says most aren't at immediate risk. They may be fine for months or longer, but not always. A study found that when treatment was delayed at a New York hospital during the first COVID surge, about a third of the patients ended up having a life-threatening cardiac event.

STECKER: These patients need to be at the top of the priority list. There are many other conditions for which we've not recognized that and are probably being inappropriately delayed or deferred.

STONE: And this goes way beyond heart problems. Arizona surgeon Sam Durrani says all kinds of surgeries that require a hospital stay have been on hold.

SAM DURRANI: It's been extremely frustrating for surgeons because our patients are getting a raw deal.

STONE: Operations for cancer, debilitating spinal issues, big hernias.

DURRANI: Some of my patients can't even eat solid food, right? They're just taking in liquids because their stomach is twisted in their chest. And I've had patients that progressed to the point where their stomach loses blood flow.

STONE: Or another patient whose gallbladder surgery was postponed.

DURRANI: She was in pain all weekend, didn't want to go to the ER, wanted to wait to come see us in the office, and we cannot admit patients to the hospital.

STONE: She ended up with a serious infection, and what was once elective was now an emergency.

DURRANI: Those patients should have had their surgery, and they should have been just fine.

STONE: Durrani's only choice is to then send these patients to the emergency department so they can get treated. But wait times are long, and it's full of COVID. And Dr. Arif Kamal says it's the last place his cancer patients want to be, so they hold off.

ARIF KAMAL: They're waiting for their pain to get to 10 out of 10 or their hemoglobin to get very low or some complication to get truly bad.

STONE: Kamal is an oncologist with the American Cancer Society and Duke University. He says there are delays in getting chemotherapy, fluids, even blood because there's a critical shortage.

KAMAL: We're seeing cancer patients come to the hospital who are sicker and a bit later in their course than we would typically see them.

STONE: Some hospitals are now restarting procedures as cases fall. But Dr. Patricia Turner with the American College of Surgeons says there's a huge backlog.

PATRICIA TURNER: We know the impact of the pandemic is going to be felt for years as a result of delays that are occurring now.

STONE: And for many people, the damage could be long lasting. Will Stone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.