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Birmingham hospitals see surge of COVID patients, plead for more vaccinations

Leaders of eight Birmingham area hospitals said the delta strain is filling beds with younger, sicker patients faster than ever before.

Health care workers in a COVID-19 unit at UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. (VIA UAB)

Birmingham area hospitals are seeing a rapid rise in very ill, younger COVID-19 patients, said eight hospital leaders Wednesday who pleaded with the public to get vaccinated. 

“Our staff are tired. Are stressed. Various stages of burnout,” said Anthony Patterson, CEO of UAB Hospital, speaking during a press briefing hosted by UAB. 

Of concern to many Alabama physicians and public health officials is the speed at which new cases and hospitalizations are increasing. The delta variant, now making up nearly every new case in Alabama, is multitudes more contagious than the original strain, producing a thousands times as much viral load, which gives it a much better chance at infecting more people and quicker, those medical experts say. 

Patterson noted that during October and November of 2020 it took the state about eight weeks to go from 750 COVID-19 hospitalizations to 1,600. 

UAB went from 34 COVID-19 patients on July 1 to 105 on Wednesday. Of those, 83 percent were unvaccinated, about a third were in the ICU, and 100 percent of them had the delta variant, Patterson said. 

“For this current surge that we’re in with the delta variant, the surge took 10 days to make that same leap in volume,” Patterson said. 

What’s tough to stomach, explained all of the hospital leaders Wednesday, is that the deaths they’re seeing now are almost all preventable with vaccines. 

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Keith Pennington, CEO of UAB medical West, said the hospital has no more critical care beds and are caring for critical care patients in the hospital’s emergency room, which on Tuesday was operating with just 40 percent of the ER’s beds due to the influx of COVID patients. 

Dr. Timothy Bode, chief medical officer at Ascension St. Vincent’s Hospital, said 88 percent of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and 93 percent of the extremely ill patients on ventilators and in critical care units are unvaccinated. 

“We’ve seen in our hospitals a 700 percent increase in COVID cases in just the last three weeks,” Bode said. 

There were 1,736 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide on Wednesday, a 46 percent growth in just a week and the highest number of patients since Feb. 3. 

Alabama added 3,399 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, bringing the state’s seven-day average of new daily cases to 2,622. That’s a 150 percent increase from two weeks ago.

At Grandview Medical Center, COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled about every seven to 10 days, said Dr. Jeremy Rogers, an emergency room doctor and director of clinical services there. Of the new COVID-19 admissions, 92 percent are unvaccinated, he said. 

“Our volume has increased over 500 percent over the past month,” Dr. Rogers said. “We’re seeing a trend toward the younger and the unvaccinated.” 

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“I took care of a husband and wife recently in the emergency department,” Rogers said. “The vaccinated husband brought his unvaccinated wife to the emergency department, and unfortunately she had severe COVID pneumonia and low oxygen levels and she was being admitted to the hospital, so I’ve seen this play out within families.” 

It’s much the same at Brookwood Baptist Health, where Dr. Elezabeth Ennis, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said they are seeing increased cases of COVID pneumonia in younger patients that requires aggressive therapy. 

“We are seeing much younger people in the hospital, much younger people without so many comorbidities or comorbid conditions,” Ennis said. “It’s tragic for nursing to care for individuals their age and the age of their children, who are unfortunately critically ill and dying this time around.”

At Children’s of Alabama the COVID-19 patient levels are back to where they were during the peak of the pandemic, said 

COVID volumes are back to where they were during the peak of the pandemic, said the hospital’s CEO, Tom Shufflebarger. 

“And that’s on top of a time when we’re setting record activity levels this summer in inpatient and emergency department and ambulatory,” Shufflebarger said. “So it’s coming at a bad and stressful time for the organization.” 

Children’s has also seen an increase in the number of employees testing positive for COVID-19, Shufflebarger said, with as many testing positive in the last week as did so during the months of May and June combined. 

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“Please get vaccinated. Get your children that are eligible for vaccine vaccinated. It is more important than ever now,” Shufflebarger said.

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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