A spike in the number of COVID-19 patients at Decatur Morgan Hospital is likely attributable to Labor Day gatherings and transmission to family members by students, according to the hospital's CEO.

She said the hospital is in the process of setting up a designated COVID-19 unit at the Parkway campus to handle overflow patients from the main campus.

"The main thing we're seeing is that it's community spread. We can't pinpoint any one thing, but we do relate it to Labor Day and school starting back," said Kelli Powers.

The hospital had 22 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients Friday, but that number had risen to 36 by Monday, the most recent data available. As of Tuesday morning, Powers said, seven COVID-19 patients were in intensive care, up from four the previous day.

Powers said K-12 students are rarely hospitalized with the virus.

"Some of them are carriers and don't even know it. It's more the parents and the teachers that we're seeing with it," she said.

The uptick in hospitalizations, along with the fear that the flu season will increase hospitalizations, led the hospital system to start the process of creating a designated COVID-19 unit at the Parkway campus.

"Parkway is the only hospital (in the Huntsville Hospital Health System) that doesn't have a distinct COVID unit. At all the other hospitals we've had to change a unit so it holds just COVID patients. We're looking to add a COVID unit at Parkway so it can be an overflow, especially for us here at Decatur," Powers said.

She said she wants to make sure the main campus of Decatur Morgan Hospital does not become so overwhelmed that it's unable to perform elective surgeries.

"The thing we're working on right now is what happens if we get a really bad flu season on top of this. How do we deal with the capacity?" she said.

She said Decatur Morgan Hospital is not at capacity, "but our ICUs are getting close."

The hospital has 19 ICU beds.

"Only seven (in ICU) have COVID today, but I have other patients in ICU beds," she said. "That's our worry for the winter season. We want to keep as many people well as possible so we do not overwhelm the ICUs."

Judy Smith, public health administrator for the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said the number of COVID-19 patients in most north Alabama hospitals has remained fairly consistent in recent weeks. 

"The troubling part of that is while hospitalizations across the state have gone down, some of the hospitals in the northern area have not gone down as much," Smith said. 

Smith said asymptomatic children with the virus can infect more vulnerable members of their households.

"Anybody can spread it," she said. "Could a school child take it home? Could a school child take it to a grandparent? Absolutely."

Smith said she is also seeing other transmission patterns.

"We are aware there are some ball games and religious meetings that have gone on where people are not wearing masks as we would like for them to. Clearly the message in all this is it is still a serious, dangerous condition," she said. 

Smith said she suspects the main cause in a rise in local hospitalizations is Labor Day gatherings.

"Usually, two to 14 days after we have a holiday, we have an uptick in cases. And we have had some increase," she said. "Then the next week tends to be when people get really sick. We're right smack in that time period. This is the third week after the holiday. We're looking at the Labor Day bump, and we're more concerned because we're beginning to hear of cases of flu."

Powers said she hopes area residents take steps that will prevent illness, and avoid a situation where the hospital struggles with capacity.

"People are not always wearing their masks," she said. "If people make it a regular routine to wear those masks and social distance, to wash their hands and sanitize, we'll get through this. Also, people need to get their flu shot."

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eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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