A team of federal health care workers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was to arrive at the South Baldwin Regional Medical Center on Friday to aid the struggling hospital as COVID-19 continues to stress the state’s capacity to care for patients.
“The most concerning thing is that we don’t know how long we’re going to be able to maintain our health care capacity,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris in a briefing with reporters Friday. “That’s really tenuous right now. We were pulling every lever and pushing every button and using every resource we can think of.”
Harris said the federal task force team will bring one physician, two nurse practitioners, four physician assistants, seven RNs, one LPN, three paramedics to the Baldwin County hospitals to add capacity and bolster staffing, as the hospital sees fit.
More federal teams could also soon come to other Alabama hospitals, Harris said, but the details are still being confirmed.
Harris said the “huge crush of patients in Southern Alabama” is resulting in a net negative number of ICU beds statewide. Alabama on Thursday had 29 fewer ICU beds in total than patients needing that care, so while some hospitals may have had a surplus of beds, still others had fewer than needed.
The state has requested of the federal government 200 ICU nurses, and more physicians, paramedics and other staff, said ADPH’s Jamey Durham, director of ADPH’s Bureau of Professional and Support Services, although he didn’t have exact figures for the other requests.
Ivey in early July declined help from the newly-formed federal COVID surge response teams, which were working in Missouri, Louisiana and Arizona at the request of those state’s governors. Alabama at the time had the second-lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the nation. Alabama on Friday ranked last in the nation.
More than 500 of those federal personnel were aiding those other states in testing, providing therapeutic treatments, augmenting local staff in the support of vaccinations, helping with field investigations and data analysis, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zents said at an Aug. 12 White House press briefing.
Asked if the National Guard could be called to help in hospitals, as is being done in some other states, Harris said that’s a decision for Gov. Kay Ivey to make.
“I think it’s probably not likely to be made immediately, but certainly that’s always an option,” Harris said.
Harris urged everyone 12 and older to get vaccinated, and stressed the pressure hospitals are facing.
“We really need people to hurry up. The rush is that our hospitals are underwater right now,” Harris said. “Any person who becomes infected could be the one who creates the next variant that the vaccines don’t work very well for.”
Harris described growing cases among Alabama’s children as a “huge spike,” with more and more testing positive and being hospitalized. Alabama had a record 50 children hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday and at least nine children hooked to ventilators on Thursday, Harris said. There were nine children hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama on July 15.
The number of Alabama children between the ages of 5 and 17 testing positive for COVID-19 during the first week of August was more than four times the number during the first week of last August.
Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 12, 2020, there were 1,356 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children between 5 and 17. During the same time this year, there were 6,181 confirmed cases, ADPH noted in the release.
“Getting kids back together in large numbers, it’s got to play a role as well but I think the biggest issue is just how transmissible this variant is,” Harris said of schools reopening and the more contagious delta variant. “We certainly have not seen numbers of hospitalized kids or kids on ventilators like this before.”
Deaths from COVID-19, which are a lagging indicator of the spread of the virus, have been increasing statewide as well, Harris said, noting recent unconfirmed deaths the department is investigating.
“Just over the past week we’ve seen numbers of 56 deaths yesterday, 43 the day before, 45, 36, 43, 32, 34,” Harris said. “A few dozen to several dozen deaths a day has been normal now for the past couple of weeks.”
Alabama has no statewide mask mandate for the public or for schools. Gov. Kay Ivey has said she has no plans for further mask mandates or other restrictive measures.
A reporter brought up the state’s school systems grappling with whether to enact their own mask mandates, and noting the larger numbers of children and younger adults hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide.
Asked what is preventing Harris from issuing a statewide mask mandate, Harris said “as you know, it’s an incredibly partisan, divisive issue.”
“Alabamians don’t agree on this. We went through a mask mandate that lasted nine months or more,” Harris said. “We were really the only Deep South red state that did that, but at this time I think the governor feels very, very clear that this needs to be a local decision made by local officials, and not something that’s mandated by the state.”
Harris said he’s uncertain a mask mandate would be very effective if it’s not supported by the public, and that the masking decisions are being made locally.
“People feel very passionate about everything related to COVID, but particularly about things that involve their kids, and that’s the situation that we find ourselves in,” Harris said. “I think you can look at states where it’s done differently, but that seems to be the way people in Alabama preferred to handle that situation.”
Asked whether Harris was saying it was a matter of politics and not practical medicine, Harris said “you can only do so much public health as the public allows you to do.”
“Public health is composed of public and health, and we can talk about health all day long, but ultimately the public’s got to agree with us in what we are telling them that we want to do.”
After nearly 400 students and staff were out of school quarantined for either testing positive for COVID-19 or having been exposed, Cullman County School Superintendent Shane Barnette said the system would not require masks.
Groups and agencies that have issued guidance urging universal masking in schools are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Alabama Department of Public Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society and a group of Alabama pediatricians who wrote a letter urging schools to require universal masking.
There were 2,702 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide on Friday, down by 62 from Thursday but up 40 percent from two weeks before and 1,224 percent from July 1, when the state had 201 COVID-19 patients.
The state’s average percent of tests that were positive over the week ending Thursday was 23.9. Public health experts say it should be at or below 5 percent or cases are going undetected.