Decatur Morgan Hospital opened a new COVID-19 unit at its Parkway campus Monday, and it was just in time because the hospital reached an all-time high of 58 inpatients presumed to have the virus.

Hospital President Kelli Powers said of the hospital's 150 inpatients, 50 tested positive for COVID-19 and eight are presumed positive, meaning one of every three inpatients is being treated for the virus. 

The hospitalizations come after Morgan County has added 1,177 cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, bringing the cumulative number of cases up to 6,182. 

Judy Smith, public health administrator for the state's northern district, said in addition to the concerning hospitalization numbers and increase in cases, people are continuing to die from COVID-19. She said 14 Morgan County residents have died of COVID-19 in the past month.

“We say we’re all in it together (for prevention), but are we?” Smith said. “A lot of folks still think we’re Chicken Little; we’re just screaming that the sky is falling.

"Well folks, the sky is falling at Decatur Morgan.”

Hospital officials said the new COVID unit at Parkway has 15 beds and will help reduce the strain on Decatur Morgan's main campus.

“The goal of the unit is to open more beds for COVID patients at Parkway to reduce the amount of COVID positive patients at Decatur’s (main) campus so we will have adequate beds for non-COVID patients, and be able to continue with elective surgeries,” hospital spokesperson Noel Lovelace said.

The unit was initially slated to open Nov. 1, but its opening was delayed so an adequate number of staff could be hired and trained.

Powers said at a news conference Monday that additional staff needs to be hired to expand the unit to 36 beds as cases and hospitalizations climb.

“Thank goodness we planned that ahead of time to have those (beds available). We’re also working on a plan right now to get up to 36 (beds), because I think we need that sooner than later, but it’ll take us a while to get there. We need physicians, staff and some capital equipment to get there,” Powers said. “Hiring the staff and the physicians is the main problem.”

Powers said the Parkway unit had four COVID-19 patients Monday morning and would soon add two additional patients.

ICU beds

Decatur Morgan has six COVID-19 inpatients in intensive care, including one on a ventilator.

“I would say next week we’ll probably double what we have in the ICU because of all the inpatients (this week),” Powers said.

Powers said between the COVID-19 patients and those in intensive care for unrelated ailments, the hospital’s main campus had one remaining bed in the ICU as of Monday morning.

“If I see an increase in that, that’s where it’s really going to be hard for us,” Powers said. “We’ll have to create some makeshift ICUs, we’ll have to go to the Alabama Department of Public Health and get some (Emergency Management Agency) help to figure out where we can put those patients.”

Another issue facing the hospital is a shortage of reagents which are used to run COVID-19 tests.

“We are working to try to get more reagent from Huntsville or from the vendors, but that is another concern I am trying to work through.”

Like wearing hard hat

Powers said the hospital currently has 20 employees who are positive for COVID-19 and 36 who are in quarantine. She said additional employees are self-monitoring, meaning they may have had an exposure but are continuing to work and monitor themselves for symptoms.

Powers said she estimates 90% of hospital employees who tested positive for COVID-19 contracted the virus outside of work. Powers said another issue is that staff are becoming fatigued as their battle against the pandemic approaches its ninth month.

“We are offering bonuses for people to work, and they look at you and say, there’s not enough money,” she said. “So at what point do we not have enough healthcare workers to take care of the patients? The physicians are tired as well.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health's Smith said until the vaccine is widely available and people wait the requisite two weeks for the vaccine to provide immunity, the best tools available to the public continue to be wearing masks and social distancing.

Smith said masks aren’t perfect, but that wearing a mask during COVID-19 is like wearing a hard hat in a construction site: “You’re not really expecting something to fall on you, but it’s there in case it does.”

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