COVID-19 cases at near-record levels, and officials warn Thanksgiving’s impact hasn’t been seen yet

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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. — Several North Alabama hospitals are setting records for the number of COVID-19 patients they’re taking care of, and officials warn that things will probably get worse for them before they get better.

The Huntsville Hospital system had 330 COVID-19 patients Wednesday at its hospitals across North Alabama, hospital CEO David Spillers said at Madison County’s weekly COVID-19 briefing. Some of the system’s hospitals, including Decatur General and Marshall Medical Centers, had more patients than they’d ever dealt with.

“Our numbers are trending up at an alarming rate,” Spillers said.

According to officials, November’s case count in Madison County was just behind July. And those two months alone made up more than half of the total confirmed cases Madison County has had since the pandemic began.

And Spillers said those cases don’t include the Thanksgiving surge, which they expect to show up in the next two weeks. When that surge begins, Spillers said they expect it to run into the Christmas holiday, when even more people could gather, letting their guards down and potentially contracting the coronavirus.

“The short story is we’re expecting this surge to last for a while,” Spillers said. “I hope it doesn’t, but every indicator is that it will, and we have to prepare for the numbers to continue to go up until we see something that would indicate that they’re going to go back down.”

Part of that preparation includes canceling elective inpatient surgeries at most facilities, Spillers said. He added that visitation policies could become more restricted soon, and already have changed at some hospitals.

“I know how hard it is to have somebody in the hospital and not allow somebody to visit, but when COVID is so prevalent in the community it’s hard to let people come into the hospital where they may infect a loved one or someone else, or one of our employees,” Spillers said.

And about 230 employees that would normally be available to take care of patients are currently out because of coronavirus, Spillers added.

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said people need to look at the facts about the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

“The facts are our hospitals are inundated,” Strong said. “They have the largest number of patients they’ve dealt with. We’re looking at every alternative to provide patient care.

“Our physicians, our nurses, the folks that are keeping our hospitals clean are doing a phenomenal job. But I’m telling you right now, we’re not to the end of this road, and we want to be sure not to scare the public, but this is real. This is the most real situation of our generation. We’ve got to take it seriously. We can only treat so many patients.”

In addition to bed space, hospitals are having to face a stark, morbid realization. Spillers says 10-12 percent of people who test positive for COVID-19 are hospitalized. About 12 percent of those patients pass away. Huntsville Hospital’s downtown campus only has space for 10 bodies in its morgue. Spillers worries what has happened in large cities like New York could happen here.

“The funeral homes cannot process people quick enough so you create a bottleneck and when you create a bottleneck it just just like a traffic jam. Cars back up all the way along the line eventually it gets to the hospital and you’ve got bodies and nobody can take them. It’s a terrible thing to happen, but at the rate we’re going it could likely happen here,” Spillers said.

Meanwhile, Madison County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Birdwell said they are meeting on a regular basis to coordinate vaccine deliveries. But he cautioned people not to let their guard down, because the vaccine process will not be quick when it does happen.

“The two vaccines that we’re made aware of right now are two-dose vaccines,” Birdwell said. “You take the first dose, then it’s 21 days later that you take the second dose. Then there’s a period of time where even after that second dose that immunity has to take place through that process. So just that process, you’re looking at over a month for just that person. So it’s not going to happen quickly.”

Spillers said although hospital employees will be among the first to get the vaccine, he does not expect they will get as many doses as they want in the beginning. But he added he does believe there will be regular deliveries of more as the delivery process goes on.

“I think for the next couple of months until we get this under control, you just need to assume that no place is safe and there’s no one that’s safe,” he said. “You don’t know.”

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