The ICUs are full, which means it's time to start redefining what we consider 'risky behavior'.
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The Latest Way to Stay Safe During Omicron Is to Avoid an Accident
Credit: Alamy

In New York City, roughly 30 people die in bicycle accidents annually. Every time I ride my bike in Brooklyn, I repeat this statistic in my head. It's a rather masochistic ritual, but it keeps me from feeling too comfortable on the street, or from getting complacent and lax. As my dad used to say, in a car versus bike fight, the car always wins.

Lately though, since this latest Omicron-fueled Covid surge, my bike has been tucked away under its weatherproof cover, awaiting use. It's not just the inclement weather that's deterred me from riding to the gym, or to the grocery store, or to a friend's inconveniently-located apartment far from any subway lines. Right now, I'm afraid that an imminent bike accident (of which there are nearly 18,000 per year in New York City), will result in injuries that can't be tended to due to either a shortage of hospital beds or lack of hospital staff.  

For a while, I believed this abundance of caution was simply a symptom of my chronic anxiety. Though I soon learned I wasn't the only one altering my behavior. On Twitter, D.C.-based editor Becca Rosen expressed a similarly cautious strategy in response to the healthcare crisis, which included avoiding her own bike and skipping unnecessary drives, especially in icy conditions.

Which led me to the question: In addition to receiving all vaccinations and wearing masks in public, should I also be going out of my way to avoid reckless behavior during the latest wave of the pandemic? Or am I just overreacting? 

Healthcare workers have long championed vaccinations and masks as they deal with an influx of patients — the most many hospitals have seen since January 2021 — though no major medical institution has advised if there's more we can do to mitigate the reality of overcrowded hospitals. Some have argued that because Omicron is so contagious, yet simultaneously less severe than previous iterations, there's nothing else to do. One way or another, the thinking goes, we'll all get it.

Alexis Hinkley, a travel nurse treating Covid patients, warned us not to be too complacent, however.

"One thing that I wish more non-medical people understood when they bring up the survival rate of Covid, is that 'no beds in the hospital,' means no beds," she implored in a viral TikTok video posted late last month, which now has 10.5 million views. "No beds means NO BEDS!" She went on to list a slew of life-threatening medical conditions that might warrant an ICU bed — strokes, heart attacks, car crash injuries — that may go untreated due to a lack of space. 

In an interview with 11Alive, Hinkley said she felt compelled to make the video after a difficult day treating Covid patients. "We were having like 16 hour wait times and people were waiting days for beds," she said. "We had like 40 patients in the hallways. That video for me, it was kind of a cry for help."

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, hospitals are, on average, at 78% ICU capacity. But those numbers aren't distributed evenly. The New York Times reported last week that one in three hospitals with ICU facilities were at 95% capacity. And in areas with low vaccination rates, the situation is even more dire. In Texas, for example, there are only 315 ICU beds left available in the entire state, according to a Vox report from Jan. 13.

However, the largest hurdle facing the healthcare system at the moment isn't a lack of beds — it's the lack of staff. In an op-ed for the Times, Craig Spencer, M.D., an ER doctor in New York City, said that the "influx of coronavirus-positive patients is also creating another source of infection for health care workers, who are being sidelined in numbers I've never seen before." The shortage, he warns, creates a domino effect that "will affect all levels of the healthcare system, from short-staffed nursing homes to ambulances taking longer to respond to 911 calls." 

In recent weeks, the wording of Covid hospitalization reports has come under fire. Patients who were taken to the hospital for non-Covid-related medical emergencies, who incidentally tested positive for the virus, were listed among the patients hospitalized "with Covid." While conservatives have taken this wording as a reason to downplay the severity of the virus, the fact remains: Patients hospitalized for Covid, and patients hospitalized with Covid, are causing a critical shortage of medical care. In the words of Hinkley, "no beds means no beds."

Facing the facts, it's hard not to feel guilty as a relatively healthy young twenty-something. I have enough common sense to realize that I'm not invincible, but I also understand that I have a greater likelihood of surviving injury and illness than not only immunocompromised people, but older individuals — people like my parents, who are in their sixties and therefore are at a greater risk of emergencies including heart attacks and strokes. Of course, not all of life can be planned (no matter how hard I've tried). There will be accidents and burst appendices and other spontaneous illnesses that require care. I get that. But the least I can do is take a few extra precautions and avoid some otherwise risky behavior. My bike can wait. Just for a little while longer.