Hospital sign

A car pulls into the emergency room entrance at UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. With its emergency department overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and normal health problems including trauma injuries and heart attacks, the hospital issued what it called an "urgent" request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms, or to simply stay home for all but true emergencies. 

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — With most of Alabama’s population still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, major hospitals are dealing with an influx of patients and asking people to limit emergency room visits as the highly contagious omicron variant takes hold.

Its emergency department overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and normal health problems including trauma injuries and heart attacks, UAB Health in Birmingham issued what it called an “urgent” request late Tuesday for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms, or to simply stay home for all but true emergencies.

Dr. Bobby Lewis, vice chair for clinical operations with UAB’s emergency department, said part of the problem is Alabama’s relatively poor vaccination rate, which is the nation’s second-lowest behind Idaho. Less than 48% of Alabama’s population is fully protected.

“It’s catching up. No doubt about it,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Two other major medical centers in the state, USA Health in Mobile and Huntsville Hospital, issued a similar requests, with the Huntsville facility citing a record number of COVID-19 patients in ER and long waits for treatment.

Earlier this week, Huntsville Hospital temporarily halted inpatient elective surgeries because more than 300 employees were unable to work because of quarantine or isolation requirements and nearly 200 people were being treated for COVID-19 at the system’s facilities.

“We regret this decision for our patients and our medical staff, but we have exhausted all of our options at this time,” the hospital said in a statement.

Nearly 1,340 people statewide were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, nearly five times as many as less than a month ago but still far below the state’s all-time pandemic high of 3,355 in early September.

While the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has not shot up as much as officials had feared so far and many omicron cases are not severe, the number of new cases being confirmed statewide is setting records almost daily and 41% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive. That translates into a lot of people showing up at emergency departments or others facilities seeking care, Lewis said.

UAB’s main emergency room in downtown Birmingham and two satellites are seeing about one-third more patients than normal, and some people are being evaluated in hallways and closets because normal treatment rooms are full, said Lewis.

Paramedics are waiting around for ambulance stretchers because patients can’t be placed in regular beds, he said, and the emergency department’s waiting room has been expanded to encompass the main hospital entrance so patients can spread out. Still, most of the dozens of chairs are full at times.

“We moved a few things around last night to make more room,” he said. People with the most severe illnesses are being seen as quickly as possible, he said, but others are waiting as long as 10 hours for treatment.

Other hospitals in the Birmingham area are having similar problems, said Lewis, and patient care can suffer. UAB said Wednesday it will convert in-person visits to telephone or video appointments when possible to stem the spread of the virus.

About 16,500 people have died from COVID-19 in Alabama, giving the state the nation’s third-highest death rate from the illness, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 5,917, a hike of 764%, Johns Hopkins said, and one in every 104 people in Alabama tested positive in the past week.

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