There were 24 hospitalized children in Alabama battling COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to the Alabama Hospital Association. Last Thursday, there were nine.
Alabama’s overall COVID-19 hospitalizations reached 602 on Tuesday, a nearly 200 percent increase from three weeks ago and a level the state hasn’t seen since March 2, 2021.
The rising hospitalizations among children and adults in Alabama is being seen in many other states as well, as the more contagious delta variant continues to spread, and vaccination rates, especially among the young, remain low.
The seven-day average of new cases per day rose by 216 percent over the last two weeks — from 255 cases per day to 807 by July 19 — which reflects the Alabama Department of Public Health’s count of the number of new cases by date of infection.
“This may be the beginning of a wildfire, and what we know about wildfires is that they are unpredictable,” said UAB’s Dr. Racheal Lee, the hospital’s epidemiologist and an assistant professor of infectious diseases, speaking to reporters Tuesday.
In addition to rising cases and hospitalizations, the percent of tests that are positive in Alabama has been increasing as well. Public health experts say the percent positivity should be at or below 5 percent or cases are likely going undetected.
Alabama’s percent positivity over the week ending Sunday increased from 10 percent to 14.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alabama has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and just 5.2 percent of Alabamians under 17 are vaccinated, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“We are seeing younger patients,” Lee said, noting that a large percentage of Alabamians 75 and older are vaccinated – 75.3 percent according to the Alabama Department of Public Health – and so fewer of those older patients are being hospitalized with COVID-19.
“We are seeing less of those patients being intubated in the intensive care unit and more of the unvaccinated individuals being intubated,” Lee said.
Lee said of UAB lab’s latest samples, taken from hospitals across the state, 85 percent came back to be the more contagious delta variant. Delta is showing up in similar percentages across the U.S., with the CDC announcing this week that 83 percent of recent cases were the delta variant.
Asked what steps parents should take to keep their children safe at school, Lee said for those with children 12 and older they should be vaccinated.
“If you’re in the same group as me — I have two children under the age of 12 — this is where I start to really get concerned as we see our community numbers increase,” Lee said.
Lee said data from last year showed that through social distancing and masking-wearing in school, children were protected from COVID-19. She noted the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidance that recommends universal masking in schools and the CDC’s recommendation to continue wearing masks if you’re unvaccinated.
“I think it’s important to consider, if you are a leader of a school, to consider continuing masking, at least indoors for your students that are under the age of 12,” Lee said. “We really want to protect them, and we want them to continue to be in school because that’s where they get their best learning.”
Gov. Kay Ivey told APR on Monday through a spokeswoman that she believes children should return to class in person and without any mask mandate. Ivey has also said there will be no new business closures due to COVID-19 and that she will not ask for help from federal teams of health experts, who are working in other states to boost vaccination rates and combat the fast-spreading delta variant.
For Lee and other health experts, the low vaccination rates, and increasing cases and hospitalizations are a reason for concern. Nearly all in Alabama and across the U.S. who are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 are the unvaccinated.
“I recommend that if you’re not vaccinated, to follow the CDC guidance to continue to wear masking,” Lee said. “If you are vaccinated I think it’s important that you continue to watch and be careful with who you’re around. If you are not feeling well, get tested, and make sure you stay home.”