Hospitalizations for the novel coronavirus have reached their highest levels in almost four months in Huntsville and across north Alabama as cases continue to climb across the nation.
The rise in cases led Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday to caution that hospitals soon may not be able to meet the demand at a time of year when hospitals typically are strained because of flu and other cold weather-related illnesses.
“Without blunting this curve, our healthcare system is very likely to not be able to handle this into the winter season,” she said. “You have to remember that people are in hospitals for reasons other than COVID-19.”
Huntsville Hospital on Wednesday reported that 113 people are hospitalized in Madison County due to coronavirus. Across the Huntsville Hospital Healthcare System in north Alabama, there are 220 patients.
Those are the highest numbers the hospital has reported since July 31 when 122 people were hospitalized in Madison County and 226 across the healthcare system at a time when Alabama was retreating from its previous peak number of cases.
The result could be that hospitals activate their surge capacities to handle additional patients and suspend elective surgeries – a step hospitals across the state took earlier this year in the early weeks of the pandemic.
“When you hear these numbers, there’s none of them that look good,” Madison Mayor Paul Finley said Wednesday.
Indeed, Alabama set a record Wednesday in its 7-day average for new coronavirus cases – the third time in four days the state has reached a new high mark. There were 2,638 new cases reported Wednesday by ADPH and 1,289 people were hospitalized statewide, the most since mid-August.
Over the past seven days, there have been 1,121 new cases of COVID-19 in Madison County alone and the percent of tests coming back positive at the Huntsville Hospital Fever & Flu Clinic topped 30 percent last week.
The prospect of again halting elective surgeries – a possibility David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital, has spoken of recently – is more dire than it might seem, Landers said.
“Elective surgery, people might think, ‘Is that cosmetic surgery?’” Landers said. “No, elective surgery is still important surgery. Persons who have need to get cataract surgery or people who need to have their gall bladder taken out. It’s needful and it’s urgent but it’s not emergent.”
“So we have to keep putting off those kinds of surgeries. When you have to put off services to patients and activities we would normally carry out – some orthopedic surgeries that need to be done but they are not life-threatening at the moment.”
“All of this affects people’s quality of life,” said Landers.
And while progress is being made in the development of a vaccine, with a limited supply possibly being available as soon as next month, Landers said it won’t be available soon enough to reduce the wintertime strain on hospitals.
“We’re really looking at widespread use of vaccination probably in the second or third quarter of 2021,” Lander said. “That can change – the only thing that’s been constant in COVID is change.
“I would like to see it earlier, but I want to be as realistic as possible based upon the science I am seeing.”