This year's early spike in flu is straining health care providers across the state. Birmingham-area hospitals are seeing higher volumes of patients in emergency departments, and beds are filling up quickly. In fact, UAB beds are full, and some emergency department patients have to wait in the hallways.

On Monday, Dr. Marie Carmelle Elie, an emergency department physician at UAB, had just left the ER when she spoke to 1819 News. She said she had already seen three stroke patients, but since beds were full, they had to wait a long time to be seen by doctors and couldn't be moved out of the ER.

"All of our beds are full of patients that are admitted to the hospital," said Ellie. "So, you can't move out of the ER into the hospital. ... Unfortunately, we have had to put some patients in the hallways, and we are packed."

As emergency physicians, Elie said she and her colleagues are often put into high-stress situations. She was even called to serve after the attacks on 9/11 in New York City. But this issue is ongoing, making the stress even more difficult to manage.

"This is the kind of work we do. We work in a crisis state," Elie explained. "But this has been going on a very long time, and it's not just one crisis. You know, it's not one disaster. It's been a series of weeks and months of the hospital being crowded and there not being any room, essentially, to take care of patients. This has been going on a very long time, and it's stressful not only to doctors but to nurses and all sorts of health care workers that are doing the very best to take care of patients, but we just can't."

At Ascension St. Vincent's Primary Care facility in Vestavia, Dr. Colleen Donohue, DO, primary care provider, said the current trend she is seeing is a rise in flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

"We are seeing more RSV in the primary care space," Donohue said. "This is always a concern with the pediatric population, but we are seeing more adults with it this year. We are still seeing some COVID infections as well.". 

Children's of Alabama said Monday was not experiencing high volume or long wait times in the emergency department but was seeing an increase in respiratory cases.

"The increase in respiratory viruses is contributing to our higher-than-normal census," said Delphene Noland, manager of Infection and Prevention Control.

Meanwhile, with over 1,200 beds full at UAB on Monday, Elie said she believes it is only a matter of time before all local hospitals are full. She said the public needs to be aware of the crisis to advocate for more resources.

"We need the public's support because, at some point, everyone is going to need an emergency visit," she said. "We might not all need a cardiologist or need a surgeon, but everyone at some point will need the emergency room, or they will know someone who needs the emergency room, and the doors need to be kept open for everyone, and we want to make sure everyone has access."

While patients are getting the care they need, Elie believes something can be done on the state level to help physicians save lives more quickly. She suggested three changes:

  1. Larger emergency departments
    To treat more patients, more room is needed in emergency rooms, Elie contends. More beds and more staff could help get patients treated promptly.

  2. Resources for mental health
    Elie said often, patients in the ER seek help for panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and depression.

    "We need the state to provide resources to address that," she added. "There are not enough resources, and they are coming in the emergency department while struggling with underlying behavior health."

  3. Innovative, at-home care pilot programs
    UAB is working to provide a pilot program to create hospital settings for patients to be treated in the comfort of their own homes. Elie believes the legislature should provide funds to begin these programs statewide.

    "If we can get more funding to keep patients at home, so they don't have to go to the hospital, we can save hospital beds for people that are really sick," she explained. "… That's exactly how we used to do it, and actually, there is a lot of comfort in that. Medicine has changed a great deal, but there is no reason why we can't deliver some of this care at their homes."

Donohue said the public has a responsibility during what primary care calls "sick season."

"We would ask local leaders and businesses to be open to allowing people to work from home when possible," Donohue added. "Encouraging their staff to contact providers to get guidance on their illness."

Other suggestions are staying home if you are feeling bad, washing your hands frequently, and creating a relationship with primary care providers who can help prevent the need for ER visits.

During flu season, patients are urged to contact their doctor or use an urgent care facility first, although many urgent care facilities are also experiencing high volumes. Elie suggested using a telemedicine service first, but anyone experiencing shortness of breath should go straight to the emergency department. Also, those who are immune-compromised should get to an emergency department as soon as they start to feel sick.

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