MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 jumped from 204 to 1,345 in July and health officials say they are worried the state will soon see numbers that match, or exceed, the previous peak of the pandemic.
Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association, said state hospitals are seeing an increase of about 70-90 patients per day with COVID-19. The number reached 1,345 on Friday, up from 204 at the beginning of the month.
Alabama’s status as the least vaccinated state in the country — plus studies suggesting that the delta variant is just a contagious as the chickenpox and that even vaccinated people can spread the illness to others — have caused health officials to worry about what is ahead and to emphasize the need for mask-wearing and vaccinations.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said a colleague likened the situation, “to being in a tunnel with a train barreling at us at full speed.”
“We cannot get out of the tunnel. We have to figure out how we are going to slow that train down on those tracks. Otherwise, we are really going to be in a very bad situation in the next couple of weeks, Marrazzo said.
The 1,345 patients in state hospitals is less than half of the number in January when there were 3,000 hospitalized. But Williamson said he is concerned the state could soon return to those numbers.
“By August we may well hit 3,000 cases again,” Williamson said.
The hospitalization numbers include not just those with severe symptoms, but those who came in for other issues and test positive. However, the number is one barometer of the pandemic’s severity and strain on the health care system.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has risen over the past two weeks from 666 new cases per day on July 14 to 1,707 new cases per day on July 28.
Only 34% of Alabama’s population is fully vaccinated, which is lowest percentage in the nation.
Doctors said incidents of breakthrough infections should not stop people from getting vaccinated because the vaccine is the best way to avoid severe illness.
“Delta is a different animal, but the vaccine is protecting us — those of us who are vaccinated— to a very high degree in terms of protection against hospitalization, going on a breathing machine and possibly dying,” Dr. Michael Saag, a professor in UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a message released by the university.