With the nation’s third highest number of people per capita hospitalized with COVID-19, Alabama’s healthcare system is reaching a breaking point.
In Anniston, nearly half of the inpatients at the Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center are being treated for complications related to the virus.
The mid-size hospital, which serves a mostly rural five-county area, normally offers a wide range of specialty services. But right now, nothing is operating as expected.
“We’ve closed our orthopedic unit and turned it into a COVID unit,” said CEO Louis Bass. “We closed our Peds GYN unit and made it COVID. Our most recent thing is where we closed our primary medical unit.”
The hospital is cutting whatever services it can to create more space and free up staff to treat patients with COVID-19.
It’s happening across Alabama.
“We are in a really really dangerous and critical window right now in the pandemic,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the state’s hospital association.
He said hospitals are filling up and trying to transfer patients out of state because they don’t have the capacity. But some out-of-state hospitals are also full.
To stay afloat, many Alabama providers are delaying elective procedures and trying to treat more patients outside of the hospital.
In just one month, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 statewide has nearly doubled, exceeding 3,000 inpatients for the first time this week.
As of Tuesday afternoon, only 80 ICU beds were available. Williamson said that is the “lowest absolute number” and equates to just five percent of the state’s capacity.
And Alabama has not even seen the impact from people gathering for Christmas and New Years.
“The worst part of this is clearly gonna be the next six weeks and that’s gonna be on the hospitals,” Williamson said. “I mean this is going to be really, really troubling on the health care system.”
One of the biggest limiting factors is a shrinking staff with many health care workers out sick or emotionally exhausted. Hospitals are recruiting retired nurses, bringing in graduating students, and paying contract staffing companies.
As cases continue to increase, Williamson said hospitals will have to stop accepting transfers. The pressure will be especially felt by smaller facilities that rely on bigger ones to take care of more complicated patients.
Officials at Alabama’s largest medical center, UAB Hospital, are preparing for crisis level, according to infectious disease specialist Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo.
“Don’t want to freak people out but it’s really time to say that this is potentially going to affect every single person who relies on our health care system to take care of themselves,” Marrazzo said during a recent news conference.
While cases have been surging, Alabama has begun to distribute COVID vaccines. The process is going slower here than in most states, though officials say the pace should pick up this week.
At Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center, the arrival of the vaccine is boosting morale.
“It doesn’t solve the problem that we’re having right now, but it gives you some kind of hope,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Raul Magadia.
For now, the hospital continues to see more COVID patients than ever before.
CEO Louis Bass said they are doing the best they can. He said they are caring for sicker patients who can’t be transferred to larger hospitals, while trying to keep their doors open to accept transfers from smaller facilities.
“The major thing people need to understand is it’s not just the COVID patients,” Bass said. “I mean, this hospital still exists to take care of the people that have the heart attacks, that have the ongoing chronic diseases.”
Chronic diseases and conditions are all too common in Alabama, one of the nation’s poorest and unhealthiest states. And Bass said COVID is just making everything worse.