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‘Tidal wave’ of COVID-19 feared as Alabama hospitals fill up

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama hospitals that already are treating a record number of COVID-19 patients are bracing for a “tidal wave” of additional cases linked to holiday gatherings, a health official said Tuesday as schools and more grappled with the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the fact that less testing is going on now than earlier in the outbreak, the state has still recorded at least 2,000 new cases daily since Nov. 15. Hospitals are treating more patients than ever, and an expected post-Thanksgiving surge of cases has yet to begin, said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Only 11% of the state’s intensive care beds were available Monday, according to the Alabama Hospital Association, and the remaining spaces could be filled as more patients are admitted than leave hospitals.

“We could really be in a situation in two to three weeks that compromises our ability to provide health care,” Marrazzo said. While experts have tried to avoid “alarmist terminology” during the crisis, she said: “I think this is a time when we need to start thinking about things like tidal wave imagery or tsunami imagery.”

At UAB Hospital, where 60 to 70 COVID-19 patients have been treated at a time ever since summer, the number of patients has jumped to 125 recently, she said, and an expected flood of cases linked to holiday travel could overwhelm the system as even nurses and doctors fall ill.


“This is a really, really scary inflection point, and I don’t think that we’re going to be able to turn it around without experiencing some more stress and some more pain,” she said. While vaccines could arrive as early as this month, officials say it will be spring at the earliest before most people can receive the shots.

Nearly 253,000 people in the state have contracted COVID-19 and more than 3,600 have died. While the illness causes only mild or moderate symptoms in most people, it can be deadly for the elderly and people with other, serious health problems.

With illness worsening as the virus rapidly spreads through communities, Birmingham city schools said they would return to virtual classes starting next week, and school officials in nearby Bessemer announced plans to return to a mix of in-person and online teaching.

Despite the worsening disease threat, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement urging systems to return to in-person teaching “as soon as possible.” While schools are safe, she said, almost 9,800 fewer students are enrolled statewide this year, and kindergarten class rolls are down 5%.

“This will not only result in a critical learning loss for our students today but will also likely lead to an equally negative impact on the readiness of our workforce in years to come,” she said. “Additionally, it could have an equally important economic loss that affects the critical funding for our classrooms and teacher units.”

Court officials in rural Cullman County announced they would end jury trials because of worsening conditions, and the Lee County sheriff’s office said delays in administrative tasks like processing paperwork would result from office workers falling ill or having to quarantine.

The Mercedes Marathon, which typically draws thousands of people to downtown Birmingham in mid-February, was canceled as a precaution because of worsening illness.

“We could not in good conscience support holding the event in February and potentially create an environment where COVID-19 could thrive. We will make every effort to help make sure the 20th Anniversary race takes place – whether it happens in 2021 or 2022,” said a statement from Michael Goebel, chief executive of the Mercedes-Benz plant west of Birmingham.

A statewide order requiring face masks in public expires Dec. 11, but Ivey could extend the mandate for additional weeks as she has done in the past.

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