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Hospitals face surge as cases continue rapid rise ahead of holidays

The state’s 4,107 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday was the second-highest daily count ever recorded.

Alabama hospitals this week are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients, and the rush has some hospitals postponing elective procedures and diverting ambulances to other hospitals because of packed intensive care units.

The state’s rapidly increasing case count also threatens to stress the already overburdened hospitals in the coming days and weeks, and state public health experts and hospital administrators are concerned that the numbers will only continue to rise if members of the public do not safeguard themselves over the upcoming holidays.  

The state on Monday set a COVID-19 hospitalization record at 2,351 patients, and on Wednesday it had dipped only slightly, to 2,310. UAB Hospital in Birmingham had a record 171 COVID-19 patients on Wednesday, and the Huntsville Hospital System was just nine shy of its record of 439 set on Monday. 

“We’ve all got to continue to be vigilant. We’ve got to continue masking and social distancing so that we can get through this surge,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-director of UAB’s Emergency Management Committee, speaking to reporters on Tuesday. 

Regional Medical Center in Anniston this week began urging ambulance crews to take patients to other hospitals because COVID-19 patients have filled the hospital’s ICUs, according to The Anniston Star.

Both UAB Hospital and Huntsville Hospital have begun postponing some elective procedures because of a lack of resources that are now required by coronavirus patients. 

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The state’s 4,107 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday was the second-highest daily count ever recorded. The record was set on Dec. 10 at approximately 4,261. The Alabama Department of Public Health said that approximately 10 percent of that day’s total of 4,735 were older backlogged results, so APR subtracted those to get the record-high 4,261. 

Alabama has added 48,812 cases in the last two weeks, more than any other two-week period. The state’s rapid pace of new daily cases will undoubtedly result in continuing rises in hospitalizations and deaths, Alabama doctors have said during briefings this week. 

The state’s rising cases and declining tests are reflected in the percentage of tests that are positive, which on Wednesday was well above public health experts’ target of 5 percent or below. 

Alabama’s positivity rate averaged a record-high 37 percent over the last week, according to APR‘s tracking of new cases and reported tests over the past two weeks. APR and many other COVID-19 tracking projects calculate the state’s percent positivity by dividing the seven- and 14-day averages of daily case increases by the seven- and 14-day averages of daily test increases.

The Alabama Department of Public Health calculates the positivity rate differently, instead dividing the number of daily cases by the number of individuals who have been tested, rather than the total number of tests done, as some people may have more than one test performed.

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There are no federal standards on how states are to report COVID-19 testing data, and a myriad of state health departments calculate positivity rates differently. According to ADPH’s calculations, the percent positivity on Saturday, the last day the calculation has been made publicly available, was also a record high 15.4 percent.  

Deaths are a lagging indicator and follow behind hospitalizations, and it takes time for ADPH to verify that a person died from COVID-19, but the number of newly reported deaths in Alabama have been rising in recent weeks. Another 74 Alabamians have died from COVID-19, ADPH reported on Wednesday, bringing the total to at least 4,198 and the state’s 14-day average of new reported daily deaths to 35. The highest 14-day average of daily deaths over the state’s summer surge was 25. 

The first of what will likely be several coronavirus vaccines on the market began arriving in Alabama on Monday, but the vaccines likely won’t be available to the wider public until summer. Medical workers most at risk are among the first to be vaccinated, and nursing home residents and staff and other first responders are to follow. 

“While we’re excited to receive these vaccine doses, these are not going to save us from the surge that we’re in right now,” Nafziger said Tuesday. She encouraged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing and to avoid travel or gathering with those outside of your own household over the upcoming holidays.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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