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Officials Say Alabama's Health Care System Is Reaching A Breaking Point

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As officials in Alabama scramble to distribute COVID vaccines, hospitals are filling up. The state ranks third in the country for the number of people per capita who are hospitalized with COVID-19. Officials say the health care system is reaching a breaking point. Mary Scott Hodgin from member station WBHM has more.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: The Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center serves a five-county area, much of it rural. In normal times, the facility in Anniston offers most specialty services. But CEO Louis Bass says right now, nothing is normal.

LOUIS BASS: We've closed our orthopedic unit and turned it into a COVID unit. We closed our PGYN (ph) unit and made it COVID. Our most recent things were we closed our primary medical unit.

HODGIN: The midsized hospital is cutting whatever services it can to make space and free up staff to treat COVID patients. It's happening across Alabama.

DON WILLIAMSON: To me, we are in a really dangerous and critical window right now in the pandemic.

HODGIN: That's Dr. Don Williamson, the president of Alabama's Hospital Association. He says hospitals are trying to transfer patients out of state because they don't have capacity, but some of those facilities are full, too. So in Alabama, they're delaying elective procedures, trying to treat more patients outside of the hospital. Since just last month, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 here has nearly doubled. This week, only 5% of ICU beds were available. And Williamson says the state hasn't even seen the impact from people gathering for Christmas and New Year's.

WILLIAMSON: The worst part of this is clearly going to be the next six weeks, and that's going to be on the hospitals. I mean, this is going to be really, really troubling on the health care system.

HODGIN: One of the big problems is they don't have enough staff. Some are out sick. Everyone is exhausted. Williamson says more hospitals will have to cut services and stop accepting transfers. It's especially bad for small facilities that rely on bigger ones to take care of more complicated patients. Officials at Alabama's largest medical center, UAB Hospital in Birmingham, say they're preparing for crisis level. Here's infectious disease specialist Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo speaking during a recent news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANNE MARRAZZO: Don't want to freak people out, but it's really time to say that this is potentially going to affect every single person who relies on our health care system to take care of themselves.

HODGIN: In recent weeks, while cases have been surging, Alabama has begun to distribute COVID vaccines. The process is going slower here than in most states. At Northeast Regional Medical Center, the arrival of the vaccine, though, is at least boosting morale, says Dr. Raul Magadia.

RAUL MAGADIA: It doesn't solve the problem that we're having right now, but it gives you some kind of hope.

HODGIN: Still, many days, the hospital is seeing more COVID patients than ever before. CEO Louis Bass says they're doing the best they can. He says they're now caring for sicker patients who can't be transferred to larger hospitals.

BASS: The major thing people need to understand is it's not just the COVID patients. I mean, this hospital still exists to take care of the people, as we've said, that have the heart attacks, that have the ongoing chronic diseases.

HODGIN: Diseases and conditions are all too common in Alabama, one of the nation's poorest and unhealthiest states. And Bass says right now, COVID is just making everything worse.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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