As coronavirus surges, Alabama has hope as vaccinations on rise

Published 1:44 pm Sunday, September 5, 2021

Alabama’s improving COVID-19 vaccination rates are offering a glimmer of hope to medical officials as the state continues to see a crush of virus patients in hospitals.

But there is also concern about what is coming as the state moves through Labor Day weekend gatherings, the start of football season and other potentially virus-spreading events.

State Health Officer Scott Harris said the state continues to be in a difficult place with near-record level hospitalizations and a record number of virus patients in intensive care. But he said they are encouraged by the recent uptick in vaccinations.

“We do have one bright spot in a way if we could call it that. We are seeing people finally show up to get vaccinated,” Harris said.

As of Thursday, Alabama ranked eighth from last among states in the percentage of the population that was partially vaccinated, but continue to occupy the bottom two spots — along with Mississippi — for the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated, according to numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We wish it hadn’t taken so long,” Harris said of people getting vaccinated. “but I do think when people have a personal experience, when they see people they know in the hospital, when they have family members who have gotten sick, perhaps that is what it has taken to motivate them.”

Harris said it is possible that the state is seeing a plateau in cases and hospitalizations, “but that plateau is not at a good place.”

Medical officials have blamed the state’s low vaccination rate — combined with the highly contagious delta variant — for the high numbers of virus patients in state hospitals. The state had 2,838 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals Thursday, of which 83% are unvaccinated, according to the Alabama Hospital Association.

“The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be getting worse over the last couple of weeks. But the bad news is we are not really seeing it trend down,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, vice president of clinical services for the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital.

As the delta variant spreads, Nafziger said they are seeing younger people in the hospital since vaccination rates are higher in people over 65. The average patient age is now about 55, about a decade younger than in January, she said.

“We are still seeing a number of patients who are younger and a lot of them were previously healthy.”

And there is concern about what might be ahead after Labor Day gatherings. Nafziger said the state saw cases spike after previous holidays.

Suzanne Judd, a professor and epidemiologist at the UAB School of Public Health, said she is concerned about potential transmission at fall football games. The “yelling and screaming” in crowded stadiums — plus the possibility that people might go to games even if they are feeling unwell — could create a perfect environment for virus transmission, she said.

“It definitely is something that worries me,” she said. She suggested people consider wearing masks in the stands while the state is going through the surge in cases.