'Like a bathtub filling up': Alabama is slammed by the virus

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Nurses and medical staff make their way through the seventh floor COVID-19 unit at East Alabama Medical Center Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Opelika, Ala. COVID-19 patients occupy most of the beds in ICU in addition to the non-critical patients on the seventh floor. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – With its dozen intensive care beds already full, Cullman Regional Medical Center began looking desperately for options as more and more COVID-19 patients showed up.

Ten beds normally used for less severe cases were transformed into intensive care rooms, with extra IV machines brought in. Video monitors were set up to enable the staff to keep watch over patients whenever a nurse had to scurry away to care for someone else.

The patch did the job — for the time being, at least.

“We’re kind of like a bathtub that’s filling up with water and the drain is blocked,” the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. William Smith, said last week.

Alabama, long one of the unhealthiest and most impoverished states in America, has emerged as one of the nation's most alarming coronavirus hot spots.

Its hospitals are in crisis as the virus rages out of control in a region with high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and other conditions that can make COVID-19 even more dangerous, where access to health care was limited even before the outbreak, and where public resistance to masks and other precautions is stubborn.

In another sign of how readily the virus can spread, the first reported U.S. case of the COVID-19 variant that’s been seen in the United Kingdom has been discovered in Colorado.

The variant was found in a man in his 20s who is in isolation southeast of Denver and has no travel history, state health officials said Tuesday. Scientists in the U.K. believe the new variant is more contagious than previously identified strains.