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Alabama Hospital Association president: COVID-19 “utterly out of control”

Not since Aug. 14, during the state’s summer peak, has Alabama had such a high number of hospitalizations.

Alabama continued to set new COVID-19 records on Thursday when the state’s 14-day average for new daily cases was a record-high 1,911. The last record was set on July 25, during the heart of the state’s summer surge. 

Coronavirus hospitalizations across the state continued surging Thursday as well, reaching 1,315. Not since Aug. 14, during the state’s summer peak, has Alabama had such a high number of hospitalizations. The state’s seven-day average for daily hospitalizations on Wednesday was 44 percent higher than from a month before. 

“There’s just no other way to describe it than utterly out of control at this point,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and former state health officer, speaking to APR on Thursday. 

“I don’t see anything to break the momentum of the pandemic. Not for the next two months at least,” Williamson said. “We’re going to go through Thanksgiving. We then roll right into the Christmas season. There will be Christmas parties. Christmas shopping. Then we roll into Christmas and then we roll into New Year’s.” 

Williamson shared a quote he’s heard used elsewhere recently that “family gatherings at Thanksgiving may result in funerals at Christmas.” 

Dr. Henry Walke, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 incident manager, told reporters on Thursday that the CDC is recommending against travel for the Thanksgiving period. 

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Just 13 percent, or 213, of the state’s supply of intensive care beds were available on Wednesday, Williamson said, but it’s not just the availability of ICU beds that can present a problem. Staffing shortages due to COVID-19 illnesses are a problem in most hospitals now, he said, because community spread is so prevalent that many health care workers are becoming sick, likely contracting it from their communities and not from workplaces. 

Williamson said hospitals from Huntsville to Dothan are quickly filling with coronavirus patients, stressing resources and overburdening the already stressed health care workers. 

“It’s emotionally exhausting,” Williamson said of health care workers caring for so many coronavirus patients. “Because they know how some of this comes out, no matter what they do.” 

The state this week set four record-high seven-day averages for new daily cases, including a new record on Thursday, but Thursday’s record-setting 14-day average, which smooths out data and gives a clearer picture of rising cases, was a first since July. 

Over the last two weeks, Alabama has seen a 23 percent increase in the number of new coronavirus cases compared to the previous two weeks, the Alabama Department of Public Health said in tweets Thursday morning. 

The increases are widespread across the state, with 53 of Alabama’s 67 counties (79%) affected (range: 0.7% – 51.9% increase). So as we approach this holiday season, be sure to take steps … to protect yourself, your friends, & your family from #COVID19,” ADPH said in the tweets. 

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The positivity rate remains dangerously high in Alabama as well, a sign public health experts say means cases are going undetected. The 14-day average positivity rate was 22 percent Thursday and should be below 5 percent to ensure adequate testing is being conducted.  

“We haven’t seen numbers this high since our surge this summer. We continue to see increases in hospitalization and deaths in the state,” said Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, in a message to APR on Thursday. 

Hidalgo also expressed concern over the state’s surging cases, hospitalizations and rising deaths as the holidays near and people may be making plans to gather indoors. She said the hope is that mitigation strategies such as masking, opening windows and doors to increase ventilation indoors, distancing and washing of hands will all help avoid additional transmission in our communities. 

“If, however, people don’t put those prevention strategies in place, we may see a continued increase in cases and positivity, which will only exacerbate the already tenuous hospitalization numbers and numbers of deaths we are seeing in the state,” Hidalgo said. 

“We are experiencing high rates of transmission in the community, so the odds of someone who is positive showing up at a family gathering over Thanksgiving is higher than it would be, for example, in the month of September, when our case counts and percent positivity was lower than it is now,” Hidalgo said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported 72 new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the state’s 14-day average of deaths to a record-high 28. 

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Deaths are lagging indicators of the spread of coronavirus and can take weeks and even months to occur after infection, and it takes the Alabama Department of Public health time to collect and analyze data to confirm a COVID-19 death. 

ADPH on Nov. 11 announced the department had begun reviewing a large number of older deaths from ADPH’s Alabama Center for Health Statistics, which may result in newly reported deaths that occurred in the past.

Williamson noted that while vaccines may be nearing emergency use approval, it will take many months before the vaccines are available to the wider public, and the new monoclonal antibody treatment  Bamlanivimab will be in short supply, once it starts being shipped out next week. He said there’s expected to be 300,000 doses available nationwide by the end of January. 

That sounds like a lot of drug until you realize we had 140,000 cases yesterday,” Williamson said of the daily count added across the country. 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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