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UPDATED: Alabama ICU beds nearly full as virus spreads; RMC re-opens second COVID ward

Nearly all of the intensive care beds in Alabama hospitals — 93 percent of them — are filled as COVID-19 again surges across the state, according to numbers released Friday by state health officer Dr. Scott Harris.

Harris said there is no sign the upward trend in COVID hospitalizations will level off any time soon.

“I don’t know right now why it would slow down,” Harris said.

The health officer held a telephone press conference with reporters Friday as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to slam the state. Alabama is among the least vaccinated states in the country, and hospitalizations of COVID patients skyrocketed over the last month, rising from around 200 people in hospital beds statewide in early July to 1,848 on Thursday. 

There’s a clear surge in Calhoun County as well, where 39 people lay in hospital beds as of Friday afternoon, according to Regional Medical Center CEO Louis Bass.

Bass said the hospital, which had been using its emergency room as an impromptu second COVID ward, has now reopened a true second ward for COVID.

Thirty-seven COVID patients are now housed at RMC, Bass said, and the hospital is working to find room for the two patients who were sent to Stringfellow Hospital earlier in the week.

That puts the hospital’s COVID patient count at about half what it was at the height of the winter coronavirus surge. The hospital was entirely free of COVID patients in late May.

Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington show Alabama’s count of hospitalized COVID patients possibly exceeding all pandemic records by late August, with as many as 4,000 Alabamians hospitalized. Bass said he’s seen projections from in-state organizations that go higher.

But the strain on hospitals has already arrived. Bass said RMC’s emergency room is already “hammered” with both COVID patients and non-pandemic summer injuries and ailments. Further stress on the system, he said, will hurt COVID and non-COVID patients alike, Bass said.

“If you have a heart attack or you have a non-COVID-related issue, all of these things become a problem because of the stress COVID is putting on the system,” Bass said.

In its early weeks, the delta surge came without a similar increase in coronavirus deaths. Now that too is beginning to change. For three days this week, the state saw double-digit deaths, for the first time in months, Harris said.

In Calhoun County, the official count of the dead from COVID-19 is 335, but that number doesn’t yet reflect the four people who died at Anniston’s Regional Medical Center this week, according to local doctors.

If there’s a bright spot, Harris said, it’s that the state in the last two weeks has seen an increase in the number of people getting their first vaccination.

“That’s encouraging, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Harris said.

Statewide, according to Alabama Department of Public Health numbers, 42 percent of people have had at least one shot, with 33 percent of Alabamians fully vaccinated.

Bass, the RMC administrator, said more than 40 people have shown up for each of the hospitals past two Friday vaccine clinics. In early July, those clinics typically drew a half-dozen patients.

Calhoun County now has at least one dose in the arm of 36 percent of its residents, with 28 percent fully vaccinated.

Even Cleburne County, long the state’s second-least-vaccinated county, saw some growth with 24 percent of the population having had at least one shot. One in five Cleburne countians is fully vaccinated.

Harris said it will take weeks for those vaccinations to truly help in fighting the spread of the delta variant — and he noted that the current upward trend in hospitalizations is steeper than during other COVID surges, and shows no sign of topping off.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Army Corps of Engineers sent teams to various Alabama cities to scope out possible sites to use as surge hospitals if the virus overwhelmed existing facilities. No Corps of Engineers plan was ever put to use in Anniston or surrounding areas. Asked by a reporter if it was time to once again consider those plans, Harris said, “Hopefully we don’t get to that point.”

Harris said there are other options hospitals may wish to consider first, including putting patients in hallways or cafeterias if need be. Moving to a separate location, he said, comes with its own challenges, including moving medical equipment.

“If you put a tent in the parking lot, you have to bring everything with you,” he said.

Bass said hospital administrators across the state have indeed discussed the Corps of Engineers “alternative facility” plans this week. He said he didn’t see an alternative facility as an option locally.

The biggest problem in a surge, Bass said, is not equipment or hospital rooms but simply finding medical staff to work with an influx of patients. The Corps plans, he said, typically involved calling in the National Guard to staff hospitals — but those Guardsmen typically are also nurses in their civilian jobs, so activating them could cause a shortage elsewhere.

Harris acknowledged that many are frustrated at having to deal with a surge after many months of work to fight off the pandemic.

“It’s correct that we would not be seeing these numbers if more people were vaccinated,” he said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.