Hospital leaders implore public to continue taking precautions against COVID-19

Birmingham-area hospital leaders shared updates on COVID-19 hospitalizations and the arrival of vaccines during a virtual news conference on the morning of Friday, Dec. 18.

Representatives from Shelby Baptist Medical Center, Grandview Medical Center, UAB Hospital, St. Vincent’s Hospital and Children’s of Alabama stressed the importance of people taking the proper precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus over the next two weeks, especially in light of a recent surge in COVID-19 cases locally and across the state.

“While we’re all pleased to have a vaccine, we must emphasize that these initial doses are limited and will not have an impact on community immunity for months to come,” said Tom Shufflebarger, chief operating officer at Children’s of Alabama and incoming president of the Birmingham Regional Hospital Council. “With record levels of the virus in our state today, it is now more important than ever to do the things that keep ourselves and each other safe.”

Dr. Jade Brice, chief medical officer at Shelby Baptist Medical Center, said healthcare workers are continuing to see a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide, but especially in the greater Birmingham area.

“In our hospitalizations, we are seeing them reach the highest levels that we have experienced since the beginning of this pandemic,” Brice said. “We know that as of yesterday morning, we had over 2,400 hospitalizations in Alabama, with Jefferson County and Shelby County combined representing about 25 percent of those hospitalizations.”

The numbers have continued to increase in recent weeks, Brice said, noting healthcare workers are seeing the materialization of the post-Thanksgiving surge that was predicted by the CDC and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“These numbers are really concerning to us because as you know, the greater Birmingham area is a vital part of the care continuum that provides much of the care to some of our rural hospitals,” she said. “Many of these hospitals in our surrounding areas aren’t able to care for some of your medical emergencies, such as strokes and heart attacks, so they depend on us to be able to give that professionalized care when their patients need it.”

With the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations comes added strain on hospitals as they operate at or near capacity.

“A vaccine is here and we’re so close, but we still have a little bit of work to do before we reach a point where we feel safe and comfortable rolling back some of our public health initiatives,” Brice said.

UAB Hospital CEO Anthony Patterson echoed Brice’s statements on the current stress on area hospitals and talked about initial vaccinations.

“What we have feared from the beginning of the pandemic has arrived,” Patterson said. “We have entered a critical stage, and the worst for Birmingham, central Alabama and our state, I think, is just beginning. The number of COVID patients in our hospital has risen almost 130 percent since Thanksgiving. Those hospitalized due to COVID now make up more than 20 percent of our total census.”

Patterson said the toll the virus is taking on local communities and hospital employees has been evident since March 18, when UAB had its first COVID-positive patient.

“To you, our community, our region and our state, I’m asking everyone on behalf of thousands of hospital employees and caregivers both here at UAB, but also in Birmingham and across the state, to please help them,” Patterson said before listing precautions people can take, such as taking masking and social distancing seriously, washing and sanitizing your hands frequently, and not gathering indoors with groups of people who are outside of your immediate family or household.

Patterson said vaccinations began at UAB for frontline healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents on Dec. 18, but noted it will be several months before the vaccines are available to the general public.

Brice said Shelby Baptist Medical Center was expecting to receive the Moderna vaccine and start administering it this week.

“It will probably be spring or early summer before we see a significant impact from the vaccinations in the community spread of the virus,” Patterson said. “During this holiday season and on into next year, we need to please make every effort to stay safe, protect ourselves, protect our families and those around you.”

Ascension St. Vincent’s CNO and COO Chris Moore emphasized the preventive decisions each person makes multiple times a day are crucial in the battle against the coronavirus.

“Unfortunately, the data in our community shows COVID-19 is spreading now more than ever before, and that puts our associates and staff and beds at capacity,” Moore said. “Sadly, 50-60 percent of our state ICUs, those beds are now taking care of critically ill COVID patients, and the acuity of those patients is vast. Our staff are tired; our associates are fatigued. The greatest gift you could give our associates is to truly take these precautions seriously over Christmas.”

Dr. Jeremy Rogers, an emergency physician at Grandview Medical Center, discussed the precautions the hospital is taking to protect its patients, hospital visitors and staff members.

“We have continued to adapt and adjust to this reality of COVID-19 so that we can safely and effectively be open to you in the community,” Rogers said. “The bottom line is, if you have a medical or surgical need, the Birmingham-area hospitals are open and are ready to care for you.”

In response to people expressing anxiety about coming to a hospital for care during the pandemic, Rogers stresses that hospitals are actually one of the safest places to be.

“We have gone to extraordinary lengths in the hospital to protect you and to protect families and to protect our staff against COVID-19,” he said, adding they have screenings and separate clinical care pathways for COVID-19 patients. “There is no mixing of patients.”

In addition, Rogers said facilities have employed a universal masking policy for all staff members, patients and family members, along with visitor limitations to reduce contact.

“COVID-19 fatigue is real, but we are seeing some glimmers of hope here with the vaccine that has just been delivered and we have started administering this week,” Rogers said on Dec. 18. “Now is the time that we really must persevere together. Together, I think we’ll get through this.”

Brice said Shelby Baptist Medical Center continues to monitor its capacity and ability to accept ambulances and transfers on a daily basis.

“We have not been turning away ambulances, but that is certainly something that we continue to monitor on a moment-to-moment basis with our administrative team,” she said. “Hopefully, that’s something we never have to do.”

Rogers said as some area hospitals have reached capacity, they have employed a system in which they can “go on diversion” and let the community know they are reaching capacity constraints.

“If a patient has a preference for going to a hospital, they need to let EMS providers know which hospital they want to go to,” he said, adding, “We will continue to do everything we can to keep our doors open.”

Moore said St. Vincent’s has added additional ICU beds as part of the hospital’s surge plans.

Regarding the vaccines, Patterson said getting healthcare workers vaccinated and growing immunity to the virus as soon as possible is critically important in avoiding staffing shortages because of COVID-19.

“This vaccine will be a game-changer for us,” Rogers said. “This will provide, eventually, some level of protection for our staff and will certainly help us with the staffing shortages we’ve experienced.”

Moore said the 95-percent effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine after the second dose is exciting regarding the level of protection it will give to initial recipients.

“The key message to get out to the community today is there is not enough of that to get out into the community for quite some time,” Moore said. “We have got to make sure we are continuing to focus on those extra precautions. It’s exciting, but that the same time, we still have several months to go before we’re going to see the real impact.”