MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Public health officials release new coronavirus data every day but outside of the numbers, it’s what’s going on inside our hospitals that may better assess the current state of the pandemic.
WSFA 12 News sat down for a frank discussion with the director of the Alabama Hospital Association, Dr. Don Williamson.
Williamson said the pandemic is different in different parts of the state. Areas like Huntsville, for example, are seeing fewer hospitalizations but other areas like Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Auburn, have had different experiences.
In those areas, hospitalizations are remaining significantly elevated.
Some cities can point to outbreaks within vulnerable long-term care facilities as the reason for their rising case numbers but, not Montgomery, according to Williamson.
“Montgomery is really worrying,” he said. “There’s not a source you can point to and say, ’80 percent of the cases are caused by this.' It seems to be more community transmission.”
The apparent increase in Montgomery’s community transmission rate comes as more businesses are being allowed to reopen. Williamson said the uptick in economic activity makes the actions of individuals that much more important.
“Now that we can go out, we can mingle with people, the six-foot distance, the handwashing, the masks in public, are far more important than they probably were when we were in stay-at-home mode,” Williams said.
ICU BEDS FILLING UP IN SOME AREAS
As for the current state of hospital intensive care units (ICUs) in the state, it again depends on the question of where you live.
“If you look at our hotspots, you look at Montgomery, you look at Tuscaloosa, you’re going to find that their ICU beds are very diminished,” Williamson said.
But Williamson was quick to explain that the availability of ICU beds changes constantly and reaching capacity is not necessarily unusual. Some ICUs occasionally run out of beds during flu season, for example, and Williamson says there are contingency plans in place. Hospitals can hold ICU patients in emergency rooms or move them to other areas of the building, if necessary. So, no patient would ever be refused treatment.
“You may have all your ICU beds full, but hospitals will always have a surge plan,” Williamson explained. “You just implement an alternative strategy.”
PANDEMIC TAKING FINANCIAL TOLL
When asked about the virus’s financial toll, Williamson said in March and April, Alabama hospitals lost $734 million because of canceled elective procedures. They were reimbursed for about $400 million of that through the ‘CARES’ Act passed by congress.
Williamson also said during that same time frame, Alabama hospitals have also spent an estimated $101 million on COVID-19 treatment costs, including the cost of added personal protective equipment (PPE) and overtime pay for employees.
Elective procedures have since been allowed to resume and some hospitals have seen a rise in revenue but Williamson says the COVID-19 pandemic is still preventing some facilities from returning to a normal schedule.
Williamson also echoed state health officer Dr. Scott Harris in his plea to the public to practice personal responsibility. He says social distancing, wearing face masks, and limiting travel outside the home will help reduce the burden being placed on Alabama’s hospitals and their staff.