Auburn-area hospital, an original Alabama hot spot, hits peak on coronavirus patients (EAMC)


People have placed signs outside the East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Alabama to support the medical workers who are continuing to work through the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Giana Han)

The Auburn-area hospital that was one of Alabama’s earliest hotspots in the coronavirus pandemic said Monday it now has more COVID-19 inpatients than during the east Alabama outbreak in late March and early April.

East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika has 58 patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, eclipsing its high mark of 54 set April 11.

“I expect we will have yet a higher peak in the next week,” Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, the hospital’s infectious diseases specialist, said in a hospital press release. “And it’s too early to tell what will happen in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, the mask mandate currently in place will go a long way in lowering our numbers and keeping them low.”

The surge in hospitalizations reflect the fast-rising trend the state has seen in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. On Monday, the Alabama Department of Public Health added 1,846 cases to the state’s total, which is now at 67,711. There have been 1,257 deaths in the state attributed to COVID-19.

At EAMC, there were 24 inpatients with the coronavirus on July 1 and that number has more than doubled in three weeks.

Lee County, where Opelika is located, added 50 cases on Monday while neighboring counties Tallapoosa while Russell County to the south added 25 cases. Three other neighboring counties had a combined new 23 cases Monday.

“We are seeing younger patients lately who are very sick,” Maldonado said in the press release. “We have had patients in their 30s die from COVID-19, and 3 of our 12 deaths this month have been under the age of 50. Some people have a hard time taking this seriously because they have only seen mild or asymptomatic cases among family and friends.

“What we have seen in the hospital is that you can take two people with the same age and comparable health, and one will barely have any COVID-19 symptoms and the other will die from it.”

The increase in patient load is also taking a toll on healthcare workers.

“We have four units designated for patients with COVID-19 right now and may very well have to open others in the coming days,” EAMC president and CEO Laura Grill said in the press release. “Last Friday, I visited our ICU for a little while. It was tough seeing how emotionally draining this is on our staff. They are used to caring for critically ill or injured patients, so that does not faze them. However, fighting a complex virus like COVID-19 every day and losing patients to it is very taxing on them as well as our staff members in other units.”

The hospital said 825 people were tested last week at its drive-thru clinic with a 17.2 percent positive rate. It’s the second straight week the hospital has set a high mark for testing. And at the Auburn University Medical Clinic, 933 people were tested with a 8.9 percent positive rate.