It’s Aug. 12, 2021, as I write this, and we again have our backs against the wall fighting COVID. In December of 2019, three months before COVID-19 reached our community, we began educating ourselves as a healthcare organization on what we came to know as SARS- CoV2, or COVID-19. We began discussions on what was happening overseas, and we watched as it reached the West Coast and decimated nursing homes in Washington. We began scenario planning for what to expect if this deadly virus were to head in our direction. We listened to our own infectious disease experts, as well as our colleagues across the country, as we thought ahead to protecting our community with medicine and information. Remember, at that time, not much was known about this novel virus, except that it was rapidly spreading, overcrowding healthcare facilities and taking the lives of vulnerable parents and grandparents.
Being part of a university community in which national and international travel is routine—and pairing that with early spring breaks for our local school systems—we anticipated being impacted early, and that is just what happened. We admitted our first COVID-19 positive patient on March 16, 2020, and our East Alabama Health family has been dealing with COVID ever since. We were one of the hardest hit areas in the state, and we quickly reached our first peak of 54 patients on April 11, 2020. During that time, our employees and physicians rose to the challenge to do all we could to provide care for our community and surrounding communities. We used our healthcare expertise to guide local information and decisions regarding what was needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.
We were supported tremendously by our community with an outpouring of love and food and prayers for our staff. We received letters of support and tokens of appreciation, and were very thankful. A year later, March 2021, we held a candlelight remembrance ceremony to mourn the lives lost to COVID-19 in our organization since March 2020. At that point, we had lost 217 souls to COVID-19 between our main campus in Opelika and EAMC-Lanier in Valley. Today, sadly, that number is 245. It slowed for a while this spring and early summer, but we’ve lost 10 more patients to COVID in the past 20 days and more will surely follow. There were 30 additional deaths due to COVID-19 across the state reported Wednesday.
But if we thought COVID was demoralizing, the on-going debates over masking in schools and public places—and the vaccine itself—are so contentious that it is downright ridiculous and defeating to everyone in the fight to beat the virus. The vaccine is a tool in our toolbelt that we did not have when this deadly virus reached us. That’s because Operation Warp Speed allowed our scientific communities to work tirelessly to produce a highly safe and efficacious vaccine.
Over the course of the pandemic, our employees and physicians opened a COVID testing site, a call center, an outpatient infusion center to infuse monoclonal antibodies to those who qualify for such, and we continued to provide care to hospitalized COVID patients as well as other patients entrusted to our care. Along with our coalition of municipal and county partners and volunteers, we quickly mobilized a mass vaccination site and administered over 92,000 vaccine doses. To date, we have administered close to 1,500 monoclonal antibody infusions. For a period during the pandemic, we had to stop all elective procedures which had devastating effects on our physicians and our healthcare system. As you can imagine, this loss of revenue coupled with the excessive costs associated with COVID, has significantly impacted our budget…and yet, we don’t cut corners on doing the next right thing.
Now, let’s fast forward to where we are today. We have three safe and effective vaccines available to everyone age 12 and older. Regardless, Alabama is last in vaccination rates. Plus, there’s now a national shortage of nurses because we have staff here, across the state and across the nation who have simply left the healthcare profession from exhaustion and burnout. We are currently on a trajectory of rapidly increasing hospitalizations across Alabama that will most assuredly surpass anything we saw at our highest peak in January. This is unsustainable. There is simply no other way to state it. These are facts. Healthcare systems here and all over the state are simply overrun, or about to be. The ability to provide care for patients needing our help for all other illnesses outside of COVID will be very limited. As of today, there are only 5 percent of ICU beds available in the state.
For months, our employees and physicians were hailed as healthcare heroes. Now, they’re being castigated and accused of promoting “false information” (what the heck!), for speaking up in support of masking in schools amid positivity rates that are exceeding 24 percent statewide, for promoting safe and effective vaccinations, and for stressing social distancing and good hand hygiene.
So today, I am here to beg you: please talk to your personal physician about getting vaccinated if you have not already done so. Social media “experts” are not trained physicians!
Growing up, I would hear my dad and others talk about “armchair quarterbacks”—the people on the sidelines who say things like “I would have called this play,” or “I would have gone for it on 4th and 2.” Now, more than ever, I understand exactly what they meant. Nowadays, we have “armchair physicians”—people who have become “trained medical professionals” armed with Google information trying to espouse nonsense of things they know nothing about.
Currently, 86 percent of patients hospitalized in our state with COVID -19 are not vaccinated. And 99 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 since January 19, 2021, (the first day America had people who were two weeks past their second vaccine dose) were not vaccinated. The age range of persons being hospitalized in our own facilities have ranged from five days old to 96 years old. The average age of patients admitted to our facilities is now 54. This is no joke!
For those of you who choose not to listen to the science, I pray you do not become infected with this deadly virus, or that no one you love becomes infected. However, if you do, I pray you do not become ill enough to require hospitalization. But the irony is, if you do become infected and need hospitalization, we will still do our very best to take care of you despite what limited capacity we may have at that time. Please realize this: as COVID-19 patients overrun our hospitals, it directly impacts our ability to swiftly take care of people in car accidents or from other trauma. Hospitalizations from COVID-19 also complicate our efforts to fully care for people experiencing heart attacks or strokes, and delays our availability to respond to all other emergencies and medical needs as well.
Our staff and physicians are exhausted—physically, mentally and spiritually. Supplies are once again becoming scarce as hospitals all over the state and nation are vying for these same resources. Please do your part to help us.
Laura Grill, RN, is president and CEO of East Alabama Health, which comprises East Alabama Medical Center, EAMC-Lanier and other healthcare services in the region.