Birmingham hospitals filling up as COVID cases race upward – AL.com

Leaders of eight Birmingham hospitals on Wednesday said COVID patients are filling beds more quickly than any other time during the pandemic, raising concerns about capacity and staff burnout as cases rise.

Between 83 and 92 percent of hospitalized patients have not been fully vaccinated, according to the hospital executives.

“We have seen in our hospitals a 700 percent increase in COVID cases in just the last three weeks,” said Dr. Timothy Bode, chief medical officer at Ascension St. Vincent’s. “Our emergency departments are extremely busy and we’re seeing a lot of patients there.”

The pace of the increase is faster than the one starting last fall and peaking in January, as hospitals treated more than 3,000 patients statewide who were extremely ill with COVID-19. The latest surge is striking hospitals already busy with patients admitted for other types of care and struggling with staffing shortages.

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At UAB Hospital this summer, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID tripled since the beginning of July. That mirrors the statewide trend in hospitalizations, which hit 1,736 on Wednesday.

“In October and November of 2020, it took us about eight weeks to go from 750 hospitalizations to a total of 1,600,” said Anthony Patterson, CEO of UAB Hospital. “For this current surge that we’re in with the delta variant, the surge took 10 days to make that same leap in volume.”

Other hospitals in Birmingham have seen similar increases.

Jefferson County hospitals admitted 388 new COVID-19 patients in the week leading up to Aug. 1, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the most in virus patients of any Alabama county. Controlling for population, Jefferson County hospitals admitted about six new patients per 10,000 residents, the 10th highest per capita rate in the state over that time.

“Over the past month, we’ve really seen our COVID hospitalizations at our facility double about every seven to 10 days,” said Dr. Jeremy Rogers, director of clinical services at Grandview Medical Center. “Our volume has increased over 500 percent in the last month.”

Hospitals are already shifting beds from one department to another to accommodate the influx of COVID patients. At UAB Medical West, less than 40 percent of emergency department beds were available Wednesday because the hospital was using them for COVID patients. Keith Pennington, CEO of Medical West, said 90 percent of patients hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated.

The sudden influx of patients has stressed healthcare workers who have already struggled through several waves of COVID-19, the executives said. Hospitals are facing this wave with fewer nurses than last year, due to staff departures for higher-paying jobs and new careers.

“They are stressed,” Pennington said. “Just when we thought things were getting better, we’re seeing it almost worse than what it was or getting there.”

Patients in the current wave are younger than the ones hospitalized last winter, they said. Patterson said a lower share of patients in the current wave have required intensive care, but many still become extremely ill with COVID-19 and require ventilator support. Some hospital officials reported critically ill patients in their late teens and early twenties.

“The demographics are a little different,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ennis, chief medical officer at Brookwood Baptist Health. “They’re younger. They have fewer comorbidities and we’re having some tragic losses in age groups that we just didn’t see before.”

The number of COVID-positive patients also increased at Children’s Hospital, said CEO Tom Shufflebarger. Few of the patients require treatment for the virus, but it still strains the hospital, which must isolate those children.

“Yesterday we had 14 patients whereas last month they were down to four or five,” Shufflebarger said. “A majority of those children are diagnosed as positive when they’re here for something else. Only a couple of them are truly here being treated as an inpatient for COVID symptoms. When they’re here for appendicitis or some other issue we are testing them and finding positive.”

All the hospital executives encouraged vaccinations to prevent severe COVID. The percentage of unvaccinated people in COVID units ranged from 83 percent at UAB to 92 percent at Grandview.

No Birmingham-area hospitals have announced plans to reduce or end elective procedures, but the officials said they would be closely monitoring COVID cases to determine whether it might be necessary.

“When you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you’ve got to realize that everything is on the table that you’ve got to consider to run your hospitals effectively and safely,” Bode said. “We’re not there now. I’m worried with the rapid increase we’re all seeing that we might be in the near future.”

If the current wave doesn’t peak soon, the number of hospitalizations could climb to 7,000 statewide, according to modeling from UAB. The hospital officials said vaccinations, along with masks and social distancing, could help prevent the worst-case scenario.

“The best-case scenario obviously is to get people vaccinated and for people to think of it not only perhaps as caring for themselves, but, very importantly, in a very philanthropic and religious state, to care for others,” Ennis said.

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