(MONTGOMERY, Ala.) — As hundreds of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients filled Alabama intensive care units, hospital staff in north Alabama contacted 43 hospitals in three states to find a specialty cardiac ICU bed for Ray Martin DeMonia, his family wrote in his obituary.
The Cullman man was finally transferred to Meridian, Mississippi, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) away. That is where the 73-year-old antiques dealer died Sept. 1 because of the cardiac event he suffered. Now, his family is making a plea.
“In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non-COVID related emergencies,” his obituary read.
“Due to COVID-19, CRMC emergency staff contacted 43 hospitals in three states in search of a cardiac ICU bed and finally located one in Meridian, MS,” his obituary read, referencing Cullman Regional Medical Center. “He would not want any other family to go through what his did.”
Alabama for weeks has seen a surge of mostly unvaccinated patients filling hospitals and intensive care units, making it increasingly difficult to transfer patients to other facilities for specialty care, said Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association.
“Every day hospitals are trying to find a place to transfer patients, and it is very difficult,” Williamson said. “We’ve had patients transferred to Georgia, to Kentucky to Florida.”
Jennifer Malone, a spokesperson for the Cullman hospital, confirmed DeMonia was a patient and said he needed to be transferred to receive a higher level of specialized care not available at Cullman Regional Medical Center. She could not comment more for privacy reasons, but said, the “continued surge in COVID patients has saturated tertiary care hospitals creating an ongoing and increasing challenge for Cullman Regional staff to find hospitals able to receive patient transfers when needed.”
Williamson also could not comment on DeMonia’s case but said the struggle to find an open bed to transfer a patient is a scenario being played out daily.
“Basically, half of our ICU beds are now filled with COVID patients,” Williamson said.
Alabama on Monday had 2,474 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals of which 86% were unvaccinated, according to the Alabama Hospital Association.
Nearly half of the state’s intensive care unit beds, or 772 beds, are occupied by a person with COVID-19. And the surge of patients meant some hospitals had to convert other space to ICUs. Patients who normally would be treated in ICU wards are instead being cared for in emergency rooms, normal beds or even gurneys left in hallways, state officials said.
The state had 1,562 ICU patients Monday, but 1,551 dedicated ICU beds.
The situation was even worse on Sept. 1 when DeMonia passed away. The state that day had 92 more patients needing ICU care than it had dedicated beds. DeMonia’s daughter did not immediately respond to a Facebook message seeking comment.
After threatening to reach an all-time high for hospitalizations during the coronavirus pandemic, state hospitals have seen a slight decline in recent days, Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said last week.
“We continue to have a real crisis in Alabama with our ICU bed capacity,” Harris said.
While Harris said Alabama’s vaccination numbers have improved in recent weeks as the state recorded double-digit deaths daily for a month or so, just under 40% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 53% nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In his obituary and in a story in his hometown paper, The Cullman Times, DeMonia was remembered as a family man who developed a love of antiques as a child and volunteered his auctioneering skills, and sense of showmanship, at community fundraisers.
“Ray DeMonia was like no other,” his family wrote.