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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. — Huntsville Hospital CEO Jeff Samz painted a grim picture of what treating a COVID-19 patient for one of his doctors has come to in 2021.

In Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing, Samz talked about a grim change one doctor has made to his protocols because of the more contagious delta variant: Before intubating a COVID-19 patient to prepare them for a ventilator, he calls that patient’s family, because he knows they may never talk to that person again.

“He didn’t have to do that before, and now they’ve added that step because when you reach that point, that might be it,” Samz said.

As of Wednesday, the Huntsville Hospital Health System had 281 patients hospitalized at its hospitals across North Alabama, Samz said — a 36 percent increase over the week before. Of the 160 patients in Madison County, he said 87 percent of them were in people who did not get the vaccine.

Systemwide, 15 people have died in the last week. Only one was vaccinated, he said, and that person had a series of other health issues.

Also among those hospitalized: Three teenagers and one 10-month-old.

And the impact is being felt in the hospitals, he said. On Monday, Huntsville Hospital canceled inpatient elective procedures; Marshall County cancelled theirs Wednesday.

“The COVID patients are competing with limited resources,” Samz said. “It impacts our ability to give prompt care to other people. Whether you have an elective surgery or you’re coming in with a stroke or a heart attack, you’re competing with a wave of COVID patients in an avoidable situation this time. So if you have delays in your care, it may be because somebody chose not to get the COVID vaccine.”

HEMSI crews have seen an increase in COVID-19 response calls, and they’re struggling to keep up with those calls in addition to their normal loads, said Crestwood Hospital CEO Dr. Pam Hudson.

And hospital workers are also feeling the impact, Hudson said. Cases have reached levels last seen in January, and the surge in patients is forcing hospitals to call in employees when they should be off.

“They are tough,” Hudson said. “But their toughness is not endless, and they didn’t start this with fresh legs.”

Both Samz and Hudson urged people to get vaccinated as soon as possible if they haven’t already. They encouraged people who have already contracted the disease to still get the vaccine, because they said it provides more protection than natural immunity.

“We’re seeing everywhere where there is a vaccination rate 60-70 percent — higher if we can get it there — those communities, those people are not getting severely ill,” Hudson said.

If you do feel like you may have COVID, both hospital officials encouraged people to get tested as soon as possible so they can determine whether they are eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment, which has shown in studies it can reduce the chances that a COVID-19 patient will need hospitalization.

Officials also encouraged social distancing where possible and mask wearing. Huntsville/Madison County Chamber President Chip Cherry said they have cancelled live events for the time being and while no one wants to wear a mask, it will help.

“If you have a hesitancy about wearing a mask I’d ask you to reconsider that, because hopefully we lessen the burden on our healthcare providers and we lessen the spread,” Cherry said.