Hospitals in Alabama are about a week away from turning away cancer patients and others in need of care if the current rate of COVID-19 spread continues, Jefferson County experts say.
“If we continue down the path were on right now with ever increasing cases, we’ll have no choice,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, Co-chair of UAB’s Emergency Management Committee at a press conference Friday.
Hospitals in the Birmingham area face staffing shortages as the disease spreads among some employees, and ICU bed space is nearing capacity as COVID-19 case numbers go up, she said.
UAB experts are urging the public to practice social distancing by wearing masks and avoiding gathering indoors with people not in their immediate households.
The county is seeing more than 300 new COVID-19 cases a day, and health experts are very worried about spread during Thanksgiving.
“I think it is important for all of us to think and rethink how we want to celebrate Thanksgiving this year,” said Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County Health Officer.
Given the current rate of spread, if 10 people gather, there is a one-in-five chance of someone being able to spread COVID-19, said Wilson. If 50 people gather, that chance increases to two-thirds, he said.
“Being together, indoors, without masks is a recipe for transmission.”
Despite expectations that COVID-19 would increase this winter, a spike prior to the holidays was not anticipated and is cause for grave concern, said UAB’s Dr. Michael Saag.
“The rate of positive tests in last few weeks has been staggering,” said Saag, adding that the current spike could be compounded by another spike in cases if families do not social distance for Thanksgiving. “I’m a little bit overwhelmed, to be honest with you, about what that will look like.”
Saag recommends small gatherings outdoors or with masks indoors. People who gather indoors should separate to eat.
“We don’t know who is infected and who is not,” he said.
Saag says recent tests on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines are a cause for great hope that by Thanksgiving next year, the virus will be defeated. But he said his hospital colleagues are becoming exhausted. He asked Alabamians to approach the year ahead like a war effort.
“We’re on a tour of duty right now,” he said. “It’s a band of brothers and sisters. It’s people fighting in the trenches together against a common enemy.” He added that survival means, “All of us doing our part of minimizing going out into crowds of more than 5-10 people.”
Dr. Wilson says the health department will continue to work with businesses and individuals who violate social distancing protocols, but they are committed to enforcing the statewide Safer at Home Order and are prepared to call on law enforcement to do so.
“The rules have not changed. We still know that mask wearing, social distancing and hand sanitation and avoiding these larger gatherings that are not from your own household are still the most effective ways to keep this virus from spreading,” said Dr. Wilson.
Jefferson County Schools will continue to remain open as there has been little evidence of spread in the classroom, according to Wilson. He said schools will close on a case-by-case basis depending on on staffing shortages as teachers go into quarantine.
First shipments of COVID-19 vaccine supplies are expected early next month in Jefferson County and will be allocated to First Responders.
“We don’t know how much vaccine we will get initially, but it will be a very limited supply,” Wilson said. He is hopeful that the general public will have access to the vaccine by the summer.
Dr. Nafziger says hospitals across the county face the same challenges of dwindling staff and bed capacity in the days and weeks ahead.
She encouraged Alabamians to go to urgent care clinics rather than emergency rooms for non-emergencies and to continue vigilance against COVID-19.
“Please help us with this. Don’t give up on us. We’re tired, but we’re not going to quit on you,” said Nafziger. “Please do your part so we can be available to help care for you.”