By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The number of COVID-19 patients in Alabama hospitals Monday climbed to more than 900 — a number the state has not seen since February — as the state sees a surge in virus cases.
There were 947 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals Monday, up from 204 at the beginning of July, according to numbers from the Alabama Hospital Association. The latest number is about a third of where the state was at the peak of the pandemic when there were 3,000 virus patients in state hospitals in January.
Dr. Scott Harris, who serves as Alabama’s state health officer, said he is “extremely concerned” about the rise in cases.
“It’s the perfect storm of large numbers of unvaccinated people and the delta variant which is highly infectious and much more transmissible than anything we saw before,” Harris said.
Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association, said the concern is not the number itself, but the steep upward trajectory in numbers. Williamson said the state has the solution in the form of the vaccine, but “there is not a long line of people wanting to be vaccinated.”
Health officials say the latest spike is associated with the delta variant which is exploiting low immunization rates, summer crowds and the end of cautionary measures like mask wearing.
“It has hit, and it’s hit with a vengeance. We are now dealing with a wildfire and this wildfire is burning out of control,” Dr. Mike Saag, a professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
“By the time we get to October, if we haven’t changed our — for lack of a better word — behavior about getting vaccinated and wearing masks in public, I think we could be in a very bad situation,” Saag said.
Like the surge in the number of virus patients in hospitals, other barometers of the pandemic are seeing a similar rise.
The percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has jumped to 11.7% after lingering below 5% for many months. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has tripled over the last two weeks, rising from 472 new cases a day on July 10 to 1,495 on Saturday, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UAB, said the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals jumped by several hundred over just one week.
“It’s just going to be a matter of time I think before we start seeing a devastating toll in terms of deaths,” Marrazzo said.
While Alabama’s mask mandate has expired, both Marrazzo and Saag urged a return to voluntarily mask wearing, in public and in schools.
“I think we should all go back to mask wearing, especially when we’re out in public. We should avoid large crowds. We don’t have to lock down. We don’t have to be at home. But if you do go out, make sure you’re wearing a mask, even if you’re vaccinated.”
Harris said he previously had optimism the state would not see winter-level case numbers again. Now, he is unsure.
Alabama ranks last in the nation for the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated, according to numbers from Johns Hopkins.
“We have really stalled out on vaccinations. We have encountered people that just have a very firm determination to never be vaccinated,” Harris said. “It’s frustrating for all of us in public health. We hate to see all of the work we’ve done for a year-and-a-half to suddenly go up in smoke just because we can’t get people vaccinated.”