MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is suffering a “self-inflicted wound” from COVID-19, with hospitals again filling up as the state trails the nation in vaccinations and pandemic precautions like face masks and social distancing are all but forgotten, a health leader said Tuesday.
Only 166 people were hospitalized statewide a month ago with COVID-19 after thousands were vaccinated and before a new variant took hold. But that low point has been followed by a rapid rise, and more than 550 people were being treated for the virus now, statistics showed.
Hospitals are far from the critical point they reached in January, when some 3,000 people were being treated at one time, but the fast-spreading Delta variant threatens to worsen the situation barring a rapid increase in vaccinations, said Dr. Donald Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association.
“There’s just a sense of frustration,” said Williamson, who used to head the Alabama Department of Public Health. “The fact that cases are rising is a self-inflicted injury.”
Statistics show that only 50 people would currently be hospitalized if everyone who is eligible for a shot had gotten one, Williamson said, and chances are their illnesses wouldn’t be as severe.
“This is the plague of our generation, and certainly of our lifetime. And now it could be so easily averted, but we’re failing to do that,” he said.
Only 38% of the state’s population has gotten at least one vaccine dose and just 31% is fully vaccinated, state statistics showed, yet the daily pace of vaccinations has slowed to roughly the same amount that were being given months ago when doses were scarce. Relatively few people still take precautions in public, and businesses full of people are a common sight.
Without a rapid turnaround in vaccinations, Williamson said, health officials worry that cases will continue increasing as highly contagious virus variants spread through the population at stores, churches, restaurants, bars, sports contests and other public events.
Rather than reimposing restrictions like mandatory mask wearing, capacity limits for businesses or shutdowns, Gov. Kay Ivey has said the only thing she supports is encouraging people to use their “common sense,” show personal responsibility and get shots.
To encourage vaccinations, the city of Gadsden said it would offer $100 to residents who received the first dose Tuesday or later and are fully vaccinated by Oct. 15. Two drawings for $5,000 will be held for every 500 residents who qualify.
The three-campus University of Alabama system, with more than 70,000 students total, said anyone not fully vaccinated will be expected to wear a face mask and practice social distancing inside campus buildings this fall. Vaccines won’t be required in accordance with state law, however.
“Data continue to show that vaccinated individuals remain protected from COVID-19. Widespread vaccination is the best way to sustain continued on-campus operations,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases inn Alabama has increased by 694, a spike of 573%.
There were about 197 new cases per 100,000 people during the period, which ranked 11th nationally, with the largest increases along the coast in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Some 11,460 people have died of COVID-19 in Alabama, giving the state the 17th highest death rate nationally. Alabama has reported more than 560,000 positive tests, and the percentage of tests coming back positive is on the rise.