MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – In a sign of just how dire the COIVD-19 crisis has become, rural hospitals in recent weeks have tried – often unsuccessfully – to transfer patients to Mobile facilities.
But hospitals in Mobile are full, too.
That’s left rural hospitals with fewer beds and resources to improvise as best they can.
Jason Daniel, director of public affairs and marketing for the Escambia County Healthcare Authority, told FOX10 news that hospitals in Atmore and Brewton so far have managed to create enough space and provide enough staff to handle the surge. But he indicated that a safety valve normally available when a hospital gets more patients than it can handle no longer is available.
“We do not have the ability to do any transfers, all areas hospitals are not accepting any outside patients because are over filled,” he said in an email.
Rendi Murphree, director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services, sounded the alarm this week about ICU shortages.
“We are at a critical shortage of adult ICU beds,” she said at a briefing on Monday. “And so that is something that we are concerned about. We hear that lots of rural hospitals are calling our hospitals trying to get transfers in, and they’re unable to take them.”
Hospitals have been battling an unprecedented hospitalization surge for weeks. On Wednesday, 2,975 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized statewide. That is just off the all-time record and almost twice what it was during the previous peak last summer.
“We are at the precipice, and over the precipice,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association. “We are holding on now by our fingertips. And, you know, it will not take much for us to simply see the system goes spiraling totally out of control.”
Statistics fluctuate on a daily bases, but Williamson said that on Tuesday, there were just 68 open adult intensive care unit bests statewide out of almost 1,700.
Even that is misleading, Williamson said.
“If you say you have an empty ICU bed, that probably simply means you’re holding people in your ER, waiting for a bed to become available,” he said. “And you’re going to immediately refill that bed from your own waiting list in the ER.”
Beyond the bed count, Williamson said, the true shortage is staff. If hospitals filled those additional 68 beds, there may well not be enough doctors and nurses to care for them, he said.
Hospital administrators in Mobile said they are doing the best they can to accommodate request from outlying hospitals. Hannah Peterson, a spokeswoman for Infirmary Health Systems, told FOX10 News that the company’s hospitals in Mobile and Baldwin County have gotten requests from rural hospitals.
“While we are unable to accept all transfers, we continue to work with our physicians and hospital leadership to assess bed capacity so that we may accommodate additional patients as needed,” she wrote in an email.
It’s not just a local problem, Williamson said.
“That’s not unique to Mobile. We’ve actually had to transfer patients as far as Louisville, Kentucky to try to find a bed,” he said. “We’ve been, some of the hospitals in Tennessee that we have, have seen patients routed to are no longer able to take transfers. That’s true in hospitals in Georgia. It’s true in Florida. It’s true in Mississippi.”
Williamson said the reverse also is true: Alabama hospitals mostly have been unable to accept patients from out of state.
Murphree, the Mobile County Health Department’s top epidemiologist, noted that infections remain high, which drives hospitalizations. He said Mobile County has 15 current outbreaks at long-term care facilities.
“So, again, just – things are at a very delicate situation right now with regard to the burden of COVID on our hospitals and our health care system,” she said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are running about double than what they were during the previous peak over the summer, when public health officials were mulling the idea of setting up temporary “pop-up” hospitals.
“We still are having those conversations,” Williamson said.
He added, however, that it is more efficient to care for patients inside the hospital where it is easier to share resources and staff.
Williamson said the hospital situation would be even worse if not for new treatments that have shortened hospital stays. But now there are a shortage of those treatments. He said that state has received only 40 percent of the monoclonal antibody treatments that it has ordered.
“Hopefully, that’s going to get better,” he said. “We’ve been working with the feds. The state’s been working with the feds. We’ve been working with the fans to try to get that supply increased to Alabama, and hopefully that will be better.”
Even as they acknowledge overflowing capacity, hospital administrators urge people not to ignore true emergencies because of the virus.
“We continue to see patients in our Emergency Department, and if you need emergency care, please do not delay treatment,” Ascension Providence Hospital said in a statement. “Our hospitals and emergency rooms are prepared to safely care for you.”