On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
In the months since March, many Americans have habituated to the horrors of the pandemic. They process the election’s ramifications. They plan for the holidays. But health-care workers do not have the luxury of looking away: They’re facing a third pandemic surge that is bigger and broader than the previous two. In the U.S., states now report more people in the hospital with COVID-19 than at any other point this year—and 40 percent more than just two weeks ago.
Emergency rooms are starting to fill again with COVID-19 patients. Utah, where Nathan Hatton is a pulmonary specialist at the University of Utah Hospital, is currently reporting 2,500 confirmed cases a day, roughly four times its summer peak. Hatton says that his intensive-care unit is housing twice as many patients as it normally does. His shifts usually last 12 to 24 hours, but can stretch to 36. “There are times I’ll come in in the morning, see patients, work that night, work all the next day, and then go home,” he told me. I asked him how many such shifts he has had to do. “Too many,” he said.