Decatur Morgan Hospital had 57 COVID patients Monday, up from 44 at one point Friday, and CEO Kelli Powers warned it is approaching the breaking point.
“As we move forward in this crisis, there’s not enough health care providers. There’s not enough beds. There’s not enough physicians for where we’re headed with this,” Powers said. “At what point are there decisions made as to who gets to live and who dies?
"We are at the point now where we’re overwhelmed. We’re not at the point yet where we pick who lives and who dies, but I believe we’re not too far away from that as a state.”
The numbers are grim. Until this month, more than 100 COVID cases in a single day among Morgan County residents had not been reported since Jan. 8. Over the last two weeks, the 100-per-day mark has been exceeded six times and over the last week an average of 98 Morgan residents have tested positive per day. An average of 58 Limestone County residents have tested positive per day over the last week, and an average of 16 per day in Lawrence County.
One-third of Morgan residents are fully vaccinated against COVID. Of those tested in the last week, 22.3% have been infected by the virus. In Limestone County, 35% of residents are fully vaccinated. Thirty percent of Lawrence residents are fully vaccinated.
“If you want to live, you need to take that vaccine,” said Powers, who noted that several Decatur Morgan patients died of COVID over the weekend. “We are having people that die every day begging for the vaccine, begging to live, leaving children behind, leaving spouses behind, and there’s no reason they should have died.”
Of the 57 COVID patients at Decatur Morgan on Monday, 9% were vaccinated. The average age of the COVID patients was 51. Eight of the patients were in intensive care, including seven on ventilators, and their average age was 61.
None of the ICU patients with COVID have been vaccinated.
The hospital is out of ICU beds, so it is holding 17 intensive care patients in the emergency room, including nine who have COVID.
Athens-Limestone Hospital, which had 12 COVID patients on Friday, had 21 on Monday.
Decatur Morgan Hospital's mobile medical unit is offering free COVID testing at Westmeade Baptist Church from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. Powers said 150 to 170 people are being tested per day. Twenty-five cars were lined up with people awaiting tests when the mobile unit started testing Monday morning. Results generally are available within 48 hours, she said.
The hospital is administering 30 monoclonal antibody infusions per day, for eligible people who have tested positive, at Parkway and is trying to ramp that up to 40 per day. To schedule an infusion call 256-973-2149.
Decatur Morgan is administering vaccines Monday through Thursday at its Parkway campus. Walk-ins are accepted, or vaccines can be scheduled by calling 256-973-2888. Pfizer vaccines are administered every day and Moderna is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Morgan County Health Department, which also accepts walk-ins, is administering the Moderna vaccine Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“There’s only two ways to get out of this mess we’re in, to get vaccinated or mask and social distance and completely stay away from people,” Powers said at a news conference Monday hosted by Mayor Tab Bowling. “I guess I’m at the point of begging now. Our staff is very, very exhausted and so are our physicians.”
She said the hospital is short 70 nurses, some who are temporarily in quarantine and some who have left the hospital permanently, and is actively recruiting full-time and part-time nurses. Powers said volunteers are also needed to assist with duties that do not involve exposure to patients, thereby freeing up clinical staff.
She said the hospital staff are exhausted and working up to 60 hours per week. “It’s not healthy for them to keep doing that.”
The staffing shortage has prevented Decatur Morgan from mandating that employees get vaccinated.
“We talk about that often because as a health care leader we want to promote vaccines,” she said. “I don’t want to mandate it because I’ll lose staff. I can’t afford to lose these nurses that do not want to take it and go other places to work. Right now we’re sort of in a Catch-22 on that. I would love to mandate it, but I don’t feel we’re going in that direction.”
Michael Glenn, assistant administrator for the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said the ADPH staff are also wearing out.
“Everybody is just exhausted,” Glenn said. “The nurses are doing double duty. We’re tired, especially when it feels like we’re beating our head against the wall trying to get people to take vaccines and they’ve dug their heels in for whatever reason.”
He said vaccination rates have increased slightly in Morgan County, now averaging about 2,000 doses per week.
“That’s not near enough. Testing is much higher than the vaccination rate. We would much prefer to use our nurses to vaccinate rather than to test,” he said.
Testing and vaccinations are available at all health departments in the state.
Statewide, 884 people were in ICUs with COVID, the most since the pandemic began. The total number of COVID patients in state hospitals was 2,829 on Monday, still below the pandemic peak of 3,087 set in January.
Glenn said of the 1,230 COVID deaths reported in the state since April 1, 92% were unvaccinated.
“This is preventable. This is so preventable,” he said.