Thanksgiving holiday travel and gatherings have doubled the number of COVID-19 patients being treated at UAB Hospital.
“We reasonably expect, based on the numbers of these cases diagnosed every day over the last two weeks, that the rate of cases we see will more than double again over the next few weeks,” Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-chair of UAB’s Emergency Management Committee, said during a joint UAB and Jefferson County Department of Health press conference today.
“That means we expect a doubling by Christmas Day of the number of patients who are in our hospital being treated, if not before,” Nafziger said, adding that the 159 COVID-19 patients at UAB is a “significant increase” that has again required a reduction in the number of surgeries and procedures that require inpatient beds.
“What that means is that patients who have serious medical conditions may have to wait to have their important elective medical procedures performed,” she said. “All this is because of the rapid rise in the number of patients requiring care for COVID-19 who are filling our hospital beds right now.”
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said the current level of disease activity in Jefferson County suggests that in a gathering of 20 people, there’s more than a 50% chance that one person in that gathering will be infectious and contagious with COVID-19.
“Any situation where you are in close contact with anyone not in your household where you’re not wearing masks is inadvisable at this time,” Wilson said. “That includes sitting across the table from someone or standing close to someone while eating or drinking. If large events occur without the strictest precautions, we will have more sick people than we have hospital or nurses or doctors to care for.”
Wilson said hospitals are creating extra COVID bed space by reallocating resources. But he said there are not active discussions about setting up field hospitals to handle the overflow at this time, an idea floated during the early stages of the pandemic.
“The main issue is staffing. That’s the main limitation,” he said. “We were making plans to set up a field hospital. We’re not really having active discussions about that right now. One of the main reasons is extra beds don’t do you any good if you don’t have the staff. That’s where we’re really concerned right now.”
Wilson said he is not planning a shutdown of Jefferson County that goes beyond the Safer at Home order that Gov. Kay Ivey extended this week.
“I would rather not be in a situation where it’s Jefferson County doing something alone. We’re part of a greater metropolitan area,” Wilson said. “What we are pleading with the public to do is to help us by being extremely careful right now.
“We do need to support our businesses and the best way to do that is to be as safe as possible in all of your practices,” he continued. “We just really, really need everybody’s help right now in terms of restaurants, bars and places where you go in.”
Wilson urged patrons of restaurants and bars to wear a mask while they’re in there as much as possible, only taking it off while eating or drinking.
“If you’re just sitting around talking to people or something like that, put that mask back on,” he said. “That is a risky situation.”
Nafziger, Wilson and Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine, talked about the Pfizer vaccine having received approval from an FDA panel Thursday. The FDA is expected to give formal approval to the vaccination quickly. The doctors said UAB will be part of the vaccine rollout.
The Veterans Administration Medical Center in Birmingham will receive a shipment of vaccine as well, Wilson added.
The first doses will go to frontline workers.
“I have to emphasize that these initial shipments are just a drop in the bucket, even for those workers,” Wilson said. “But the good news is we expect more vaccine to continue coming and the Moderna vaccine, we hope, will be available in the near future.”
Vickers acknowledged that the creation of vaccines has been quite quick but said that’s not because researchers “took shortcuts.” He said it was due to next generation molecular biology.
“Typically, enrolling in a trial with 30,000 people for other illnesses have taken one or two years,” he said. “In this case. it’s taken only two or three months because of the urgency around this pandemic. As it becomes available for the general public, I would encourage you to get in line, be first in line to get this vaccine.
“I would be most delighted,” Vickers added, “if people of color and minority community and everybody actually lined up and demonstrated that, as Americans and Alabamians and citizens of Jefferson County, we recognize that this is what can change the course of events for our community.”