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Alabama hospitals calling off elective procedures as COVID fills beds

Just 6 percent of Alabama’s ICU beds were available on Monday, with COVID-19 hospitalizations increasing 122 percent over the last two weeks.

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

Alabama hospitals this week have begun postponing some elective procedures as COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases continue to surge, threatening more surgery cutbacks in a state that has the least number of fully vaccinated residents in the U.S. 

Alabama hospitals were caring for 2,134 COVID-19 patients on Monday, a 122 percent increase from two weeks ago. Of those, 628 were in ICU beds, Alabama Hospital Association president Dr. Don Williamson told APR on Monday. That’s an increase of COVID-19 patients in ICUs of 31 percent from six days ago. 

The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has increased by 42 percent from six days ago, according to the association’s numbers. 

The state had just 6 percent of its ICU bed capacity available on Monday, or 87 beds, which Williamson said was the lowest it’s been since Jan. 22. COVID-19 patients made up 42 percent of those ICU beds Monday. 

That lack of available ICU beds worries Williamson, who said that during the peak of the winter surge, when available ICU beds and the staff to manage them were at their lowest numbers, it became difficult for many hospitals to care for both COVID-19 patients and those who suffered other serious injuries. 

“With the direction we’re going, that’s going to become increasingly hard over the next few days,” Williamson said. 

Among Alabamians hospitalized recently with COVID-19, 94 percent were unvaccinated, according to a survey by the Alabama Hospital Association, AL.com reported

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There were 33 hospitalized children with COVID-19 statewide on Monday, and the number of younger people contracting COVID-19 continues to increase. 

“The patients are younger. We’re seeing more pediatric patients now than we did at any point during the pandemic,” Williamson said. That’s due in part because of the smaller percentage of younger Alabamians who are vaccinated as opposed to older residents, state health experts have said. 

Schools are reopening this week, and with no statewide mask mandate for children or school staff, the decision to require them has been left to local school districts. The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend universal masking for students older than two and staff in schools. 

Williamson said he believes the next 10 days “are going to be very, very telling in terms of pediatric cases.” 

“Hopefully that won’t drive up pediatric hospitalization. It could, but I’m going to be very interested to see what that looks like in terms of the number of cases over the next 10 days,” Williamson said. 

More Alabamians are seeking out vaccinations than were previously, but the increase is outpaced by the state’s growing hospitalizations. The state’s seven-day average for new daily doses grew by 78 percent over the last two weeks, up to 13,663 doses on Sunday. 

Alabama has the fewest number of fully vaccinated residents in the nation and is the only state with less than 35 percent fully vaccinated, at 34.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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Also worrying is the lack of vaccinations among hospital staff, Williamson said. He estimates that most Alabama hospital workers are between 50 percent and 60 percent vaccinated, which can impact the state’s health care system in two ways. 

“If those staff get ill that’s fewer people to take care of patients,” Williamson said, “And some of those staff may end up as patients in the hospital.” 

UAB hospital on Monday had 111 COVID-19 patients, and 23 more who were admitted for COVID-19 and are still hospitalized, but no longer have COVID. It was the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since Jan. 16 and the hospital’s two-day increase of 23 patients was the most since Dec. 6-8, UAB announced. 

UAB beginning this week has lowered the number of surgical procedures by 10 a day and could lower it further if the numbers of COVID-19 patients increase. 

“The surgical procedures that are now delayed are for serious, important medical issues that can be put off in the short term. However, a long delay in performing these procedures can lead to more serious and significant issues,” UAB said in a statement. “Should COVID care needs continue to increase, UAB has plans to reduce surgical admissions by another 10 cases per day.”

Huntsville Hospital Health System on Monday began delaying elective surgeries that require overnight stays at both Huntsville Hospital and Madison Hospital due to increasing COVID-19 cases. 

Alabama has the fifth-highest percentage of new cases per 100,000 in the U.S., according to The New York Times COVID tracker, at 58 cases per 100,000. 

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Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, in a Monday briefing said the county continues to see a “startling rise in the number of patients with COVID 19 reported to us.”

On Sunday, there were 414 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Mobile County, up from 350 on Thursday, Murphree said. The county’s percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive is also at a record high at 32 percent. Public health experts say it should be at or below 5 percent or cases are going undetected. 

Statewide, the average percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive over the last week reached a record high of 23.3 percent. 

Mobile County’s percentage of emergency department visits for COVID-19-like illness is also at a record high, at 10 percent, Murphree said. 

“Nothing in this reality that we’re living in is anything compared to anything we have seen in the past 18 months,” Murphree said.

Written By

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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