Swamped Alabama Hospital Sends 'Urgent' Request for People to Stay Home Unless Emergency

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Alabama hospitals are being overwhelmed with new patients.

On Tuesday, Birmingham's UAB Health issued an "urgent" request for people to only come to the hospital for emergencies, asking them to go somewhere else for minor injuries and for COVID-19 tests.

The hospital attributed the request to an influx of COVID-19 patients in their emergency rooms in addition to people coming in for typical emergencies like heart attacks and serious injuries.

About 1,250 people were hospitalized in Alabama on Tuesday, almost a five-fold increase from last month, but not nearly as high as its September peak of 3,355.

Dr. Bobby Lewis, vice chair for clinical operations with UAB's Department of Emergency Medicine, said the emergency room and its two satellite locations are seeing about one-third more patients than usual. Due to a lack of space, some of these patients have to be seen in hallways and closets.

The waiting room has also expanded into the hospital's main entrance to keep patients adequately spread out, and ambulance stretchers have been used as makeshift beds, he said.

Lewis added that the rise in cases and hospitalizations is likely due to Alabama's vaccination rate standing at under 48 percent—the second lowest in the U.S. behind only Idaho.

Alabama, COVID-19, clinic
Alabama is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, overwhelming some emergency rooms. Above, Baptist Health Coronavirus Care Clinic on March 23, 2020, in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Huntsville Hospital temporarily halted inpatient elective surgeries. More than 300 employees were unable to work because of quarantine or isolation requirements, it said in an announcement Monday, 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.

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 percent of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive. That translates into a lot of people showing up at emergency departments or other facilities seeking care, Lewis said.

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.

Other hospitals in the Birmingham area are having similar problems, said Lewis, and patient care can suffer. UAB said on Wednesday that 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 percent, Johns Hopkins said, and one in every 104 people in Alabama tested positive in the past week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.