Airlines cancel holiday flights due to COVID staffing shortages
Omicron variant is latest blow to pandemic-weary front-line workers
Staff absences for COVID-19 tripled this month in London’s hospitals, and nearly 10 percent of the city’s firefighters called out sick.
In New York, about 2,700 police officers were absent earlier this week — twice the number who are ill on an average day. And on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, grocery worker Judy Snarsky says she’s stretched to her limit, working 50 hours a week and doing extra tasks because her supermarket has around 100 workers when it should have closer to 150.
“We don’t have enough hands. Everybody is working as much as they physically and mentally can,” the 59-year-old in Mashpee said. “Some of us have been going like a freight train.”
The worldwide surge in coronavirus cases driven by the new omicron variant is the latest blow to hospitals, police departments, supermarkets and other critical operations struggling to maintain a full contingent of front-line workers as the pandemic enters its third year.
Governments have taken steps to stem the bleeding across a range of jobs considered essential for society, from truckers and janitors to child care providers and train conductors. But nurses and other workers worry that continued staffing woes will put the public at greater risk and increase burnout and fatigue among their ranks.
Seattle Officer Mike Solan, who leads his city’s police union, said his department is down about 300 officers from its usual force of 1,350.
“It’s difficult for our community because they’re waiting for that call for help,” he said. “And then we’re at risk because we don’t have the proper safe numbers to have a safe working environment when we answer that call for help.”
Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said she and her intensive care unit colleagues never truly had a break from COVID-19, and the arrival of omicron has only reawakened her post-traumatic stress.
“Prior to work, I get really bad anxiety,” she said. “If I’ve been off for two days, I will come back in a panic because I don’t know what I’m walking into.”
Countries including Spain and the U.K. have reduced the length of COVID-19 quarantines to ease staffing shortages by letting people return to work sooner after testing positive or being exposed to the virus. The U.S. did similar for health care workers only.
Meanwhile in the U.S., states such as Massachusetts have called in hundreds of National Guard members to help fill the gaps in hospitals and nursing homes, where they serve meals, transport patients and do other nonclinical work.
Unions representing health care workers gripe that far too many hospitals failed to fill staff vacancies or to retain pandemicweary staff.
For example, there are 1,500 nursing vacancies in New York’s three largest hospitals alone, or about double the number at the onset of the pandemic, said Carl Ginsberg, a spokesman for the 42,000-member New York State Nurses Association.
“There are not enough nurses to do the job right, and so there are situations where the units have dangerous conditions, where patients are in jeopardy,” he said.
In London, the U.K.’s omicron epicenter, a wave of staff absences is hitting hospitals just as COVID-19 admissions have doubled in three weeks. The latest surge will probably persist until mid-January, officials said.
“It wouldn’t take much to cause a crisis,” said David Oliver, a consultant physician at a hospital in southeast England.
The operators of U.S. nursing homes, which were crippled by some of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks early in the pandemic, are among those pleading for officials to do more.
While cases in long-term care facilities have not risen sharply yet, the industry is bracing for omicron with 15 percent fewer workers today than when the pandemic began, said Rachel Reeves, a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association and the ?National Center for Assisted Living, an industry trade group.
Nursing homes historically struggle to compete with other health care operators because their pay rates are effectively fixed by the government, she said, so providers hope President Joe Biden’s administration can boost Medicaid funding and create staff recruitment and retention programs.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan provides $350 billion for state and local governments to provide “premium pay” to essential workers. States are also using other buckets of pandemic funds to bolster their workforce.
NEW YORK — Airlines canceled hundreds of flights as the omicron variant jumbled schedules and drew down staffing levels at some carriers during the busy holiday travel season.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they canceled flights because of staff shortages tied to the omicron variant. Delta canceled 145 flights on Friday and 111 for Christmas Day, according to FlightAware. (Other factors, such as weather, are also causing cancellations.) United called off 175 flights on Friday and 69 on Saturday.
Not all airlines said COVID was disrupting their travel schedules. American Airlines said it had “nothing to report,” while Southwest Airlines said “things are running smoothly.” JetBlue did not respond to a request for comment.
Flight delays and cancellations tied to staffing shortages have been a regular problem for the U.S. airline industry this year. Airlines encouraged workers to quit in 2020, when air travel collapsed, and were caught short-staffed this year as travel recovered.
“The nationwide spike in omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”
Delta said it canceled flights Friday because of the impact of omicron and possibility of bad weather after it had “exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying.”
The airlines both said they were trying to rebook passengers.
While some travelers canceled holiday plans because of rising case numbers, many others kept to their vacations during some of the year’s busiest travel days. The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen nearly 30 million people from Dec. 20 through Jan. 3, compared with nearly 44 million during the last holiday season before the pandemic.
Germany-based Lufthansa said Friday that it was canceling a dozen long-haul transatlantic flights over the Christmas holiday period because of a “massive rise” in sick leave among pilots. The cancellations on flights to Houston, Boston and Washington come despite a “large buffer” of additional staff for the period. The airline says it couldn’t speculate on whether COVID-19 infections or quarantines were responsible because it was not informed about the sort of illness. Passengers were booked on other flights.