Hospitals prepare for COVID-19 surge possibility as schools reopen

Updated: Aug. 5, 2020 at 6:02 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As Alabama’s schools prepare for the unknown, the state’s hospitals are doing the same.

“I’m bracing myself for an August and September of rising case rates again,” explained Dr. Don Williamson, M.D., Executive Director of the Alabama Hospital Association. “I just don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I think we have to be prepared.”

The start of school coincides with flu season. Hospitals are ramping up recruitment efforts to hire additional providers and procure personal protective equipment, or PPE, ahead of what could be the largest inpatient wave yet.

“Crowds are simply an invitation to spread the disease, so as school regathers and as colleges regather that’s what everybody’s so concerned about,” Williamson said. “We are creating a perfect environment for spread of the virus if we do not absolutely and rigorously adhere to the recommendations [of wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and vigorous handwashing].

For example, after holding a teacher work day in neighboring Georgia, more than 200 teachers reported they contracted the virus or were exposed to someone with COVID-19. It’s one of the case studies that’s concerning to a number of health care professionals.

“I’m very very concerned, based on the data that we’ve seen both out of South Korea and now this study out of Georgia with the camp there, that we’re likely to see some very troubling trends with transmission when schools come back together,” Williamson warned.

If hospitals are overwhelmed, they will be forced to rely on alternative care sites or pop up hospitals. That’s why the National Guard and FEMA are currently scouting out sites for possible use as a preventative measure.

“Not because we’re going to pull the trigger, but you’ve got to have them identified because it takes a few days to a week or more to set one of these things up, and so you got to be prepared,” Williamson added.

Williamson says staffing, not ICU availability, is the greatest rate limiting resource in this pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 62 of Alabama’s 67 counties were already medically understaffed. As most hospitals have already weathered at least one to two waves of inpatient populations that pushed their facilities to surge capacity, the providers are weary. Nurses have taken on additional shifts as their colleagues contracted the virus. Williamson added that it takes more staff to care for COVID patients than others that require critical care.

“Now they’re dealing with the emotional reality of knowing what’s coming, which makes it even worse,” he explained. “Between the shortage we started with, then the loss of healthcare workers to COVID, the physical toil associated with working multiple shifts and the emotional toil involved, our folks in health care have just done a remarkable job.”

Williamson realizes there are no easy answers or options for school during the pandemic.

“As a parent, keeping your child at home is the safest thing to do,” he stated. “It clearly reduces your risk as a parent of getting infected, a grandparents getting infected, another loved one getting infected. On the other hand that loses all the benefits of classroom instruction. So you could also argue that in-classroom instruction is the right answer. But then, then you have to worry about how are you actually going to manage what happens when a teacher gets infected, or a child in a classroom gets infected. And then you have to worry about the spread back to the parents.”

In an effort to keep providers on the job, hospitals are working to smooth the transition for their families.

“Some of them are looking at supplementing daycare payments for staff. I know some of them are actually looking at trying to work with their community to put together safe learning centers where kids in smaller numbers can do can do distance learning.”

Medical professionals stress that masks and social distancing are the only prescriptions that will allow students and teachers to safely return to the classroom.

“Masks are uncomfortable, they’re hot, they end up itching, but it’s still a whole lot better than getting COVID and endingup in a ventilator; or, even if you don’t end up on a ventilator, knowing that you likely gave it to somebody else who did”, Williamson stressed. “I would simply say, if the requirement is to wear a mask in the classroom, you wear a mask in the classroom.”

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