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Hospitals short on staff as COVID-19 surges in North Alabama

The Huntsville Hospital System is increasing restrictions for hospital visitors and stopping elective in patient surgeries at most of their hospitals.

MADISON COUNTY, ALABAMA, Ala. — Hospitals across North Alabama are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients, and case numbers continue to rise at alarming rates.

During an already busy season for hospitals, more and more people are dying from and being hospitalized with COVID-19.

The weekly average of people in Alabama testing positive for COVID-19 each day is nearly 2,300. Officials say that number needs to stay below 1,000 for hospitals to manage.

RELATED: Hospital officials expect COVID-19 spikes through January

Because health officials expect this trend to last well into January, the Huntsville Hospital System is already making changes. They say people can expect increased restrictions for hospital visitors. They are also stopping elective in patient surgeries at most of their hospitals.

Huntsville Hospital CEO, David Spillers, said, "The reason you eliminate in patient first is because you need the beds, and the nurses and the staff that take care of the overnight in patient surgical patients can be used more easily or more readily to take care of in patients, COVID and others."

It's not space they are most worried about. They say the problem is not having enough staff. Right now, about 230 health care workers in the Huntsville Hospital System are out due to COVID-19.

On top of that, Spillers says we are losing many nurses to other states. That's because Alabama doesn't have the resources to pay all nurses a competitive wage.

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Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong says we must stay vigilant and keep COVID-19 cases down in order to prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

"We cannot afford to lose the care givers and health care professionals who provide the care we need, and especially for the critically ill with coronavirus," said Chairman Strong.

Spillers says models predict hospitalizations in the state could double before we are even out of the current surge. If the trend now continues, hospitals will have to pull workers from other units.

"It's not easy to take a nurse that has been working in surgery for 20 years and then all of a sudden have them go to a floor and take care of a COVID patient. It's a totally different work environment for them," said Spillers.

The Huntsville Hospital System is actively recruiting nurses. They have hired over 100 new nurses that will finish up training and start in January 2021.

Madison County leaders are hopeful a COVID-19 vaccine will help limit the spread but say once we get COVID vaccines, it will take time to give them.

Spillers says we will have to vaccinate around 60% of Americans to start seeing an impact.

Most coronavirus vaccines being considered right now are two-dose vaccines, meaning people who are vaccinated must get the first dose, wait 21 days and come back for the second dose.

RELATED: Dept. of Health and Human Services Operation Warp Speed and vaccine distribution update

Vaccines will be distributed based on population size and will be limited at first.

Spillers said, "If you asked me how many doses I would've liked round one, probably 30,000, enough to vaccinate virtually everybody in our hospitals and start getting out in our clinics. A realistic number probably would have been half that, we will probably get far less than that."

These potential vaccines require more care than flu shots, creating another obstacle to get them out quickly. The Huntsville Hospital System does have freezers to store the vaccines once they are available.

Officials believe we will start getting COVID-19 vaccines regularly after the first round.

WATCH: Hospital officials expect COVID-19 spikes through January