Emergency Departments Are Being Flooded With COVID Patients

Dr. Bobby Lewis, vice chair of clinical operations for UAB Emergency Medicine, in a press conference Dec. 29, 2021 (Source: Zoom)

UPDATE — Alabama once again added more than 8,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day on Friday, and the positivity rate rose to an all-time high of 34.6%.

Alabama has had 896,614 COVID cases reported since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to an Alabama Department of Public Health update late Friday afternoon, 8,051 more cases than Thursday.

Jefferson County added 1,810 of those cases and hit a positivity rate, the rate of COVID tests that returned a positive result, of 37.4%. Every county in the state is now at high risk for transmission of the virus.

Emergency rooms are being overrun with record numbers of patients, and a UAB doctor on Wednesday urged people not to go to emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests or treatment for minor symptoms.

Dr. Bobby Lewis, vice chair of clinical operations for UAB Emergency Medicine, said UAB and other hospitals in the city have for the past few days been seeing about a third more patients than they usually would on a heavy day.

The hospital already has appropriated additional spaces to handle the emergency department overload and it has brought on more doctors, nurses and other personnel to handle the surge, Lewis said. Hospital officials are considering converting more space to treatment areas, such as setting up tents.

“We are approaching the point of being overwhelmed,” Lewis said.

They are not at the point of calling in the National Guard, but they could if the rise continues, he said.

When to Go to Emergency Departments

Lewis said people should be taking COVID seriously, but emergency departments are not the best place to get tested or to treat minor symptoms.

People should go to hospital emergency departments if they are running high fevers that are particularly difficult to control, having a persistent cough, particularly a dry cough, or are having shortness of breath with light exertion, Lewis said.

If they are having more minor symptoms, those should be treated at home or under the supervision of the patient’s doctor.

People who want to get tested can pick up self-tests at most drug stores or be tested at local health departments, health clinics, local doctors’ offices, urgent health centers and pharmacies. They also can call any hospital’s main number and be directed to nearby testing locations, he said.

UAB also extended its hours of operation at the UAB Hospital-Highlands parking deck and will be open Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. for employee and community testing. It will be closed Saturday for New Year’s Day and reopen Sunday in the extended hours.

Lewis reminded people that vaccines are the best protection against COVID, even though they don’t give as much protection against the omicron strain. He said 97% of patients hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated and said, “Rarely do we see anyone sick that got a booster.”

Emergency departments need to be free to handle people who need care for non-COVID illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes, Lewis said.

UAB is taking precautions to protect non-COVID patients from contracting the virus from other patients, he said, such as by setting up separate waiting rooms and otherwise segregating patients.

The surge of patients going to emergency room is much greater than Lewis has seen during previous COVID surges, he said, and hospitals had trouble managing the crowds then.

He said UAB’s emergency room might see 400 to 450 people on a heavy day, but Tuesday it handled 617 patients.

“We don’t know when this is going to peak,” Lewis said. Going by experiences in countries where omicron struck first, “Hopefully we’re going to reach a peak soon and start to taper off,” he said.