INDIANAPOLIS — Of all the Covid patients that Ronda Stevenson is treating over Christmas, there’s one she cannot stop thinking about. He has been hospitalized for 10 months, and in all that time his 7-year-old daughter has never once been allowed to visit, prohibited from the hospital by age restrictions that keep families separated. Situations like this are bringing even veteran health care workers to tears.
Ms. Stevenson, an intensive care unit nurse at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis for the past seven years, cries as she talks about her patients and their families, making clear the grinding toll of the pandemic on already exhausted hospital work forces.
“We’re pretty short-staffed,” Ms. Stevenson said. She added: “It’s getting harder.”
Instead of taking holiday vacations this weekend, workers at strained hospitals across the nation are working 16-hour shifts. Some have been on the job every day for weeks. Festive meals have been replaced with protein bars and sports drinks.
This Christmas weekend, with the United States facing another surge of illness stoked by a proportion of the population that remains unvaccinated, frontline workers are again sacrificing time at home with family to tend to Covid patients. In Indiana, which has among the highest rates of hospitalization and lowest rates of vaccination in the country, the situation is especially acute.
“A lot of people, including myself, had scheduled time off but are now being asked to come in and pick up shifts to cover for one another and meet the increased demands of patient care,” said Dr. Graham Carlos, the executive medical director at Eskenazi, which is at capacity and has had a backlog of patients in the emergency room.
He worries that it will only get worse. “If the numbers continue as they are, a tidal wave of infections is going to hit hospital systems, putting us in dire straits,” he said.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, hospital workers have already faced the emotional toll of mass death. They have endured the frustration of pleading with the public to take precautions, only to watch outbreaks unfold as people ignored their calls. They have suffered the moral distress of not being able to give patients the ideal level of care.
But this season, there is a new strain: Many workers have left because of burnout and anxiety. And with the Omicron variant pushing case numbers up dramatically, the caregivers who remain are getting infections, too.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Maureen May, a nurse with 37 years of experience who serves as president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals. She canceled her own holiday plans to pick up a shift on Christmas Day so that a co-worker could have time away.
Facing urgent concerns about hospital staffing shortages, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week shortened the isolation periods for infected health care workers, allowing them to return to the job in seven days, instead of 10. President Biden also said that 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical personnel would be deployed to shore up staffing levels at hospitals in the coming weeks.
At IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, the National Guard has been helping with tasks such as transporting patients and cleaning. Now, a 20-person Navy team is arriving to help supplement the medical staff, which is depleted in part because about 350 workers across the broader hospital system are out with Covid or because they have been exposed to the virus.
The New York State Department of Health is urging parents to get all children who are 5 and older vaccinated, citing a jump in pediatric hospitalizations associated with the coronavirus.
Beginning the week of Dec. 5 through the current week, there has been a fourfold increase in Covid hospital admissions among children in New York City, where the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, the department said in an advisory on Friday. About half were under the age of 5, and not eligible for vaccination.
The advisory did not give the specific number of New York City’s pediatric Covid hospitalizations, but state data shows that more than 50 children under the age of 5 were hospitalized with Covid across New York as of Thursday.
The jump in pediatric cases is evident in other states as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that Covid cases were “extremely high” among those under the age of 18 across the country. Citing data as of Dec. 16, the academy said cases among those under 18 had risen by 170,000 for the prior week, an increase of nearly 28 percent since early December. Pediatric cases are higher than ever before in the Northeast and Midwest, the data show, and all regions of the country have significantly more such cases since schools reopened for in-person instruction this fall.
The New York State advisory reported that during the week that preceded Dec. 19, none of the 5- to 11-year-old Covid patients admitted to the hospital had been fully vaccinated. In the same period, one-fourth of the 12- to 17-year-old hospitalized Covid patients had been fully vaccinated. As of Friday, only 16 percent of the state’s children aged 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated, the advisory said, a proportion that rose to 64 percent for those aged 12 to 17.
“The risks of Covid-19 for children are real,” Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the acting state health commissioner, said in a statement. “We are alerting New Yorkers to this recent striking increase in pediatric Covid-19 admissions so that pediatricians, parents and guardians can take urgent action to protect our youngest New Yorkers. We must use all available safe and effective infection control, prevention and mitigation strategies.”
Overall, cases in the state have spiraled upward this month, driven by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. The new variant made up 92 percent of new cases in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate released Monday that grouped the four areas together. There were 32,591 new cases reported in New York on Friday, according to a New York Times database, a stark increase from the 6,644 reported on the last day of November.
Some public health officials are predicting a continued steep increase in Omicron cases over the next few weeks, followed by a steep decline, similar to South Africa’s experience with the variant.
Dr. Bassett said that parents could help shield children too young to be eligible for vaccination by ensuring that those around them have been vaccinated and received boosters, as well by wearing masks, avoiding crowds and taking tests.
The department encouraged parents and guardians to be aware of common Covid symptoms in children, including fatigue, headache, trouble sleeping, muscle aches, a cough that becomes productive, sore throat, chills, nasal congestion and a new loss of taste or smell. If a member of the household is exposed to the coronavirus, the advisory said, children should also undergo testing, social distancing and quarantining.
— Todd Gregory
A flurry of flight cancellations continued on Christmas Day, with U.S. airlines scrapping nearly 1,000 flights as the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus caused crew members to call out sick.
The cancellations affected more than 10 percent of the flights scheduled by Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and JetBlue. American Airlines had canceled less than 5 percent of flights, according to FlightAware, which provides aviation data.
By midday on Saturday the number of cancellations had already exceeded the total cancellations on Christmas Eve, a setback for travelers and airlines hoping this holiday season would be a return to relative normal. Globally, more than 2,500 flights scheduled for Christmas Day were canceled.
“A number of Covid-related sick calls led us to make the difficult decision to precancel some flights scheduled for today,” said Derek Walls, a spokesman for American Airlines, which had about 90 cancellations on Saturday. “We proactively notified affected customers yesterday, and are working hard to rebook them quickly.”
And the problems are expected to continue. Delta, which said weather in some parts of the country was also causing problems, expected to cancel more than 300 flights scheduled for Sunday. And FlightAware said other U.S. airlines had already canceled 150 flights for Dec. 26.
The cancellations come during one of the busiest travel periods of the year, and Americans are flying nearly as much as they were prepandemic, with about 2 million people streaming through screening checkpoints each day in the week leading up to Christmas Eve, according to the Transportation Security Administration. At some points the number of travelers this year even exceeded the number of passengers who flew in 2019, according to the T.S.A.’s data.
The travel period also came during a fresh surge of Covid cases. The U.S. is averaging almost 200,000 new cases each day, according to The New York Times’s coronavirus tracker, more than the average case load during this summer’s peak.
An airline trade group asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to shorten the recommended isolation period for employees who test positive for Covid-19 from 10 days to “no more than five days,” with a negative test to return. “The Omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our work force and operations,” the group, Airlines for America, wrote in a letter to the C. D.C’s director.
But the Association of Flight Attendants has pushed back on that request, telling the C.D.C. on Thursday that “we support your agency’s current recommendation to isolate for 10 days” and that decisions to reduce isolation times “should be made by public health professionals, not airlines.”
India is expanding its Covid vaccination drive to include everyone 15 or older and making health workers and some older citizens eligible for booster shots, as the country grapples with the prospect of another wave fueled by the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation late on Saturday, said vaccines would available to those 15 to 18 years of age as of Jan 3. He also said booster doses would be offered as a “precaution” to health workers and those 60 years and above with comorbidities starting on Jan 10.
India has fully vaccinated about 60 percent of its adult population of roughly 900 million people, while about 90 percent have received at least one dose of vaccine. After a sluggish start marred by mismanagement, the country’s vaccination drive picked up pace in recent months. But the government is short of the declared goal of fully vaccinating all adults by the end of the year.
About 90 percent of Indians have been vaccinated with Covishield, a locally manufactured version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Initial studies in Britain found that AstraZeneca’s vaccinations showed no ability to stop Omicron infection, while its booster shot did raise antibody levels enough to suggest that it may offer protection against the Omicron variant.
The previous variant, Delta, fueled a deadly second wave in India in the spring that devastated the country, overwhelming the health infrastructure and leaving hundreds of thousands dead. The government’s jumbled response, with political leaders continuing to hold massive election rallies and allow large religious gatherings as the virus spread, only worsened the disaster.
Even as some Indian states have moved to restrict gatherings and impose measures after the detection of Omicron cases, both Mr. Modi and opposition leaders have held crowded rallies in Uttar Pradesh. The country’s largest state with 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is headed to a crucial election in the spring.
“In many countries of the world, infections are increasing due to the new Omicron variant,” Mr. Modi said during his address to the nation. “I appeal to all not to panic but remain vigilant.”
Clockwise from top left: A Christmas Eve Mass at Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Detroit. A Covid patient at St. Mina Hospital in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, received a Christmas present. A cleric offered communion during a Christmas Eve Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, a government-sanctioned Catholic congregation in Beijing. People at Christmas Eve Mass outside the Manila Cathedral in the Philippines. Doctors and nurses had a Christmas Eve meal at Timone Hospital, one of France’s largest, in Marseille.
Surges of new coronavirus cases are sweeping around the world, driving the global seven-day average of new cases to more than 755,000, according to a New York Times database.
A Navy combat ship deployed to intercept drug trafficking in the Caribbean and East Pacific is stuck in the port at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with a coronavirus outbreak among its fully vaccinated crew.
Only some of those infected onboard the ship, the U.S.S. Milwaukee, were experiencing mild symptoms, said Commander Kate Meadows, a Navy spokeswoman. It was not clear how many infections involved the Omicron variant, which continues to gain dominance rapidly around the world.
The crew held an open-air Christmas service on the pier on Saturday, which allowed the sailors to remain socially distanced and to follow public health guidelines, according to Commander Meadows.
“They are using the open space and fresh air for as many safe activities as they can,” she said. “The chefs onboard are making a special Christmas meal today for everyone.”
The Milwaukee had more than 100 sailors plus a helicopter combat crew and Coast Guard law enforcement unit on board when it left its home port in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 14 as part of the U.S. Southern Command’s efforts to fight drug trafficking. The ship made a refueling and resupply stop at Guantánamo Bay on Monday and extended its stay there because of the outbreak.
Commander Meadows added that the sailors had been confined to the pier and had not entered the base since arriving, sparing the small community at Guantánamo Bay the possibility of being exposed.
In a statement on Friday, the Navy said that “the ship is following an aggressive mitigation strategy” and that “the vaccine continues to demonstrate effectiveness against serious illness” among the crew.
Before the Milwaukee left Florida, Brian A. Forster, the ship’s commanding officer, said in a Navy news release that many of the crew members were on their first deployment and “eager to see the world and accomplish missions.”
In March 2020, one of the military’s first encounters with the virus occurred aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The ship docked in Guam, in the South Pacific, and ended up stranded there for months after dozens of sailors were infected and one died. The ship’s commander at the time sent a letter to Navy officials pleading for help tackling the outbreak and criticizing the Navy’s failure to provide the proper resources. He was removed from command of the ship after the episode.
Active-duty troops in the Army and Navy were fired this month over their refusal to get vaccinated after President Biden mandated vaccination for the armed services in August. But there were only a small group of holdouts last week, with the Navy reporting that more than 98 percent of its members had been vaccinated.
Amid an outbreak of positive coronavirus tests fueled by the Omicron variant, the N.F.L. re-formatted its testing strategy for the vaccinated, doing away with daily checks and testing only players who are symptomatic or are deemed to have had a close contact to a positive case.
But players have still tested positive, ending up on the Covid-19 reserve list, making it clear that the pandemic will likely impact the competitive balance as teams make their playoff pushes.
The games in Week 16 this weekend have important postseason ramifications. The Ravens and the Bengals will meet in a crucial A.F.C. North game, the Bills and the Patriots will have a rematch of their frigid chess match a few weeks ago and the Steelers have a must-win game against Kansas City.
The pandemic has caused many supply-chain bottlenecks in everyday life, but few are as critical as the United States’ ever-shrinking blood banks. For the American Red Cross, which supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood, and other nonprofit blood centers, the problem lies mostly at the top of the chain: the diminishing number of healthy donors.
“This is the biggest challenge that I’ve seen in my 30 years in the business,” Chris Hrouda, the president of biomedical services at the American Red Cross, said in an interview on Thursday.
Donations of blood typically decline at this time of year, when holiday parties, wintry weather, seasonal illnesses, travel, and school and college breaks lead to lower donor turnout. But Mr. Hrouda said this month’s national supply had dipped to levels that the Red Cross has not seen in 10 years.
“We simply like to keep three days of inventory,” he said. “We’re struggling to keep one day.” Blood takes up to three days to be tested and prepared for patients.
Remote work, blood drive cancellations, and the limits that colleges and businesses have placed on the number of people allowed in public spaces have all reduced donor turnout.
“We just didn’t get as much access as we had hoped for this fall,” Mr. Hrouda said.
Compounding the problem, the Red Cross, like many employers, is struggling to attract and retain employees amid the pandemic.
The critical shortage leaves hospitals to more carefully allocate the precious resource. “We have not had to delay any cases yet, but we are very mindful or what our blood supply is,” said Dr. Jennifer Andrews, the medical director of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center blood bank in Nashville. Blood donations are essential for surgeries, cancer treatment, chronic illnesses and traumatic injuries.
Vanderbilt, the only level-one trauma center in its region, has recalibrated the transfusions they use to rescue patients — by using fewer red blood cells — to ensure that there is enough for all. “We still think that’s safe, and we know that saves lives,” Dr. Andrews said.
Other hospitals have altered treatment for some patients or canceled some patient surgeries, Red Cross officials said.
At Vanderbilt, “an elective surgery put off today is an emergency surgery tomorrow,” Dr. Andrews said. The medical staff has held two to three blood drives a month, up from one before the pandemic, to help replenish the center’s supplies, she said. But more is needed.
The nation’s blood supply also faced a critical shortage after March 2020 as the first wave of the coronavirus spread across the country. Blood drives were canceled when businesses closed, and many people — especially older Americans, who have traditionally been the most frequent donors — feared going into donation centers. At that time, the F.D.A. eased some restrictions to help reverse the drastic drop in supply.
“We’ve overcome the fear of any sort of risk associated with a blood drive,” said Mr. Hrouda, who noted that the supply had largely bounced back until the Delta variant began spreading last summer. Blood bank directors are hoping that supply will once again catch up to demand.
“Every unit of blood is giving someone life,” Dr. Andrews said. “This holiday season, you can give the gift of life.”
Want to donate blood? You must be at least 17 years old in most states and in good health. You can sign up online with the American Red Cross, call 1-800-RED-CROSS, or find a donation site through America’s Blood Centers. You can also call your local hospital to see if blood donations are accepted there.
ROME — Pope Francis used his annual Christmas message on Saturday to pray for the many whose lives have been upended by the pandemic and to urge the world’s leaders to engage in “patient dialogue” to end conflict and “encounter others and do things together” at a time when so many are forced to be apart.
In his address, Francis called on Jesus to “grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects.” He reiterated pleas that Covid vaccines be made available to all. And he asked Jesus to “comfort the victims of violence against women, which has increased in this time of pandemic,” a scourge that he recently denounced as “almost satanic.”
It was the second year that the pandemic had held sway in the pope’s Christmas message. But in a sharp contrast to last year, when he made the address from within the Apostolic Palace, surrounded by only a few because of coronavirus restrictions, this year Francis spoke from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to thousands of faithful present in the adjacent square.
Such outdoor gatherings are currently prohibited in Italy, which was hit this past week by a steep surge in coronavirus cases. But Vatican City, which sets its own rules, allowed the crowd to gather on Saturday for the pope’s Christmas address. Those present were required to wear masks and respect social distancing.
Throughout the address, his message — known as the “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “To the City and the World”) — was one of solidarity and community.
“Our capacity for social relationships is sorely tried,” the pope said. “There is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all by ourselves, to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together.”
LONDON — After Britain reported 122,186 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest number of infections in a single day since the start of the pandemic, booster shots were being administered across England through Christmas Day and Boxing Day — the day after Christmas and a major shopping event.
Britain has reported more than 100,000 new cases for the past three days, and the rise of the highly infectious Omicron variant has prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step up efforts to deliver more booster shots.
National Health Service staff and volunteers are working through the holiday season in vaccination centers to give thousands of booster shots, National Health Service England said in a statement on Friday.
So far, more than 32 million third doses or boosters have been administered in Britain, and around 56 percent of adults have now received those shots, according to government data, and deaths remain relatively low, at a daily average of 116. In February, Britain’s average death toll hit a peak of 1,248.
Sajid Javid, the country’s health secretary, thanked the National Health Service and volunteers for “sacrificing time with their loved ones to deliver lifesaving jabs.”
“We are pulling out all the stops to offer all eligible adults a booster by the end of the year, and it’s so important people play their part and come forward,” he said in a statement.
In her first Christmas address to Britain since the death of her husband, Queen Elizabeth II offered a personal message on Saturday as the nation is again experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases as the pandemic enters its third year.
Since her husband, Prince Philip, died in April, Britons have been whiplashed by Covid. After prolonged restrictions, England reopened this summer to much rejoicing, but mere months later, many saw their plans upended again as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus took hold.
The royal family has also experienced its own turbulence. Concerns for the health of Queen Elizabeth, 95, have hung over much of the year, especially after she canceled a series of public engagements this fall.
In her televised address on Saturday, the queen was seated at a desk in the White Drawing Room in Windsor Castle. Next to her was a photograph of her and Philip taken on their 60th wedding anniversary in 2007.
“Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who have lost loved ones,” the queen said. “This year, especially, I understand why.”
Referring to Philip, the queen said that she had “drawn great comfort from the warmth and affection of the many tributes to his life and work — from around the country, the Commonwealth and the world.”
SEOUL — Three members of the global K-pop phenomenon BTS have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Big Hit Music, the group’s management company.
The company said that RM, 27, and Jin, 29, tested positive on Saturday after returning to South Korea from the United States this month. The day before, Big Hit Music announced that Suga, 28, who returned from the United States on Thursday, discovered that he was infected while in quarantine and after taking a P.C.R. test.
All three received their second dose of the coronavirus vaccine in August, the company said. Suga, the stage name for the artist Min Yoon-gi, had tested negative before traveling to the United States, the company said. RM (Kim Nam-joon) and Jin (Kim Seok-jin) initially tested negative on returning to South Korea.
The company previously said that Suga had had no contact with the other members of BTS. He was not displaying any symptoms as of Friday, and he was isolating at home, the company said.
The news comes a month after another K-pop megastar, Lalisa Manoban, 24, of Blackpink, better known as Lisa, tested positive for the coronavirus. The other members of Blackpink — Jennie, Jisoo and Rosé — tested negative, the production company, YG Entertainment, said in an emailed statement last month.
BTS has become a multibillion-dollar act, known for dynamic dance moves, catchy lyrics and fiercely devoted fans. In 2018, BTS became the first K-pop group to top the Billboard album chart, with “Love Yourself: Tear.” In September this year, the group gave a speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York, promoting coronavirus vaccinations and praising young people for their resiliency during the pandemic.
The band traveled to the United States in November and performed at the American Music Awards. Big Hit Music announced later that members of BTS would be taking an “extended period of rest.”
John Yoon contributed reporting.
When Amir Blumenfeld was deciding what to buy for a Secret Santa gift exchange, he landed on something practical: an at-home Covid-19 testing kit. “What better gift is there than peace of mind?” Mr. Blumenfeld, a 38-year-old comedian, wrote in a direct message on Twitter.
At the heart of his quip was an urgent concern: Coronavirus cases are once again rising around the United States as the Delta variant has given way to Omicron, a highly contagious form of the virus. The surge has fueled demand for Covid tests ahead of the Christmas holiday as families seek ways to gather safely.
Some have braved hourslong lines at local testing sites to receive polymerase chain reaction tests, whose results, obtained in a laboratory, are considered the gold standard for detecting the virus. Many others have rushed to buy rapid at-home tests, depleting the stock at pharmacies and online stores. The frenzy for at-home testing has turned the kits into a commodity and even made them covetable holiday presents.
Abbott Laboratories, which made headlines back in August for destroying materials used in its tests, citing limited shelf life, said the company is currently making more than 50 million BinaxNOW rapid antigen test kits every month. In January, the company said, it will increase its output to 70 million a month.
Pharmacies have seen a spike in demand for at-home tests, most of which cost between $7 and $24. Some are starting to place limits on how many each customer can buy.
“Following Thanksgiving and leading into the upcoming holiday week, we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in demand for rapid OTC Covid-19 tests across the country,” a spokesperson for Walgreens said. “Some stores may experience a temporary shortage in rapid OTC testing solutions.” The spokesperson added that a four-item purchase limit on test kits went into effect on Tuesday.
A representative for Amazon said: “At this time, we are experiencing inventory shortages on some Covid-19 tests due to increased demand” and that the company is working to “secure additional Covid-19 test inventory” from selling partners.