US panel: 1st vaccines to health care workers, nursing homes
Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital in New York on April 15. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

They’re all familiar recommendations: Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Get a booster.

Physicians and health experts across Texas say we’ve had the tools to protect ourselves for more than a year and a half.

But as Texans prepare to enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside yet another wave of the novel coronavirus — fueled by the new, more transmissible omicron variant — hospital workers across the state are weary, burned out, and generally frustrated by what appears to be another strain on an already exhausted workforce that could be reaching its limits.

And without increases in vaccinations, the holidays could signal a turning point for hospitalizations.

“We’re trying not to panic people or throw cold water on holiday plans,” said Dr. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council. “But we’re raising our hand and reminding people COVID is still there. We’ve got better medications, better treatment, but the reason we’re raising our hand is the sheer volume we might have to face. And we have limited staff to deal with it.”

Just more than 60% of eligible Texans age 5 and older have been fully vaccinated, according to state health data. As of Monday, more than 83% of Texas ICU beds were full, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dallas’ UT Southwestern University Hospital had no ICU beds available. San Antonio’s University Health System’s ICU bed capacity was at 84%, with 15 ICU beds available. At Houston Methodist, just 10 of the hospital’s 153 inpatient ICU beds were free.

“Critical care teams, they’re tired,” Love said. “They’ve been at this for over two years now. We’re trying to balance our workforce in the emergency department and the overall emotional stability of our workforce, because they’re very fatigued.”

Before omicron, hospital levels were more or less under control recently, and health care workers have gotten some relative rest, even as delta remained a constant, according to Houston Methodist Hospital President and CEO Dr. Marc Boom. But that could soon come to an end.

“Certainly the last couple of months have been a time of catching one’s breath,” Boom said. “But we really wish that everyone could catch their breath for a much longer time.”

At this point, COVID-related hospitalizations are far below pandemic highs seen last year and earlier this year. But researchers are seeing omicron spread much faster than even the delta variant, which was the previous variant of concern.

Seventy-three percent of new infections across the United States are omicron related, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An unvaccinated Harris County man in his 50s is believed to be the first recorded death related to omicron in the U.S.

At Houston Methodist alone, researchers say cases are doubling every two to three days.

“We may get the double-whammy of having lots of patients coming in, but having many staff who are having to take some time off at home even if they have mild infections,” Boom said. “That’s a challenging situation.”