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COVID-19 Not the Only Health Threat in Town

UAB Emergency Department staff working on patients in the trauma bay of the Emergency Room, 2017.
By Bob Shepard
UAB News

You may have heard about this virus going around. But with all the attention rightly paid to COVID-19, the rest of the aches, pains, ailments and injuries that afflict the population and that the health care system deals with on a daily basis have not gone away.

People still get sick. People still get injured.

May was National Trauma Awareness Month, designated by the American Trauma Society, and the news from the world of trauma is mixed as the pandemic wraps up its fifth month. The good news is that trauma cases at major trauma centers such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham are down overall. But the numbers are not all rosy.

“The number of trauma cases we are seeing now are down some 10-12 percent from last year,” said Jeffrey Kerby, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Acute Care Surgery in the UAB Department of Surgery, part of the School of Medicine. “The numbers that are not dropping are falls, especially with the elderly, and gunshot wounds.”

Kerby says that, at some trauma centers around the nation, falls, particularly falls by the elderly, make up about 80 percent of their patient visits.

“We don’t see as many falls at UAB, but the volume is going up,” Kerby said. “Unfortunately, gunshot wounds and assaults are holding steady, or even growing.”

The numbers back Kerby up. According to the Birmingham Regional Emergency Medical Services System, the number of patients to which the BREMSS trauma system responded in Jefferson County dropped from 381 in March and April 2019 to 339 in March and April of this year. Injuries to pedestrians did not drop, and penetrating injuries, such as from bullet or knife wounds, went up — 103 during March/April this year, against 100 in those months last year.

“People are driving less but walking more, so it’s not surprising to see a drop in vehicle crashes while pedestrian injuries hold steady,” Kerby said. “There are a lot of people out walking, running and biking in my neighborhood. I know I drive a bit slower now as a result.”

Trauma cases that result from violence trouble Kerby.

“It is discouraging to see the numbers of patients from violence increase, especially as we continue to cope with the pandemic and people remain tense and on edge,” Kerby said. “At the UAB Trauma Center, we can save about 97 percent of the gunshot victims who make it to the hospital alive. I just wish we saw fewer victims of violence in our community.”

Kerby has advice as states reopen and society begins to return to a more normal setting.

“We don’t need to see a rash of injuries as we open up from people overcompensating as they are released from stay-at-home orders,” he said. “We need to be careful, to have awareness of our situations and to think. We’ve all had a lot of angst and concern over the pandemic. As we ease back into more normal life, we need to also ease back into our usual routines and avoid injuries. I think a lot of people are going to be pushing the envelope, trying to make up for activities or projects that were put on hold by the pandemic. That’s a good way to find yourself in a trauma center.”

Kerby says he did not expect Americans to celebrate National Trauma Awareness Month. But he does hope that people take a moment to think, and try to avoid becoming a trauma statistic.