On Monday, 41 more Alabamians died of COVD-19. Alabama’s State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday asked that we remember the health care and public health workers, and the dead.
“I’d like you to remember the 9,310 Alabamians we’ve lost this past year. We now have lost 16,496 Alabamians to this disease since the beginning, including 41 deaths that were reported to us yesterday, so we unfortunately are not in a real good place right now,” Harris said.
Harris noted the state is seeing the highest daily case counts ever, and all 67 counties are deemed to have high levels of community transmission. Home tests results don’t often get reported to the state, so the state’s official case tally is an undercount, he explained.
Alabama for the last two weeks has regularly posted several thousand newly reported cases a day. Harris said the more contagious omicron variant is likely driving those cases, and while the variant is causing less severe illness in some, the large number of infections is still leading to an uptick on COVID hospitalizations.
Alabama hospitals on Monday had 1,104 COVID hospitalizations, the first time there’s been more than 1,000 since Oct. 7 and a 200 percent increase from three weeks before. Harris said hospitals are dealing with “unprecedented numbers” of infected or exposed health care workers, which is putting a strain on hospital resources.
Child COVID hospitalizations in Alabama are currently making up a larger percentage of all COVID hospitalizations in the state, Harris said, but the reason for that isn’t yet clear. There were 34 children hospitalized with COVID in Alabama on Tuesday, he said.
“We had numbers in the 30’s and 40’s of kids back when we had 3,000 people in hospitals,” Harris said of child COVID hospitalizations.
Asked what he puts that increase in child hospitalizations to, Harris said the large number of infections overall could play a role, as could the very low number of vaccinated children in Alabama. Just 9.1 percent of children aged 5 to 11 in the state are vaccinated, according to the department.
Harris also mentioned his concern over the state’s high percent positivity, which is the percent of COVID tests that are positive. Public health experts say it should be at or below 5 percent, but Aabama on Tuesday had a seven-day average of percent positivity of 38.5, which was the latest in several straight days of record highs.
“It is just spreading like wildfire. It will infect everyone in the state at some point, or most of them,” Harris said of the omicron variant, “So we really need people to do the single most important thing they can do to protect themselves, which is to be fully vaccinated…Being fully vaccinated and boosted seems to protect most people against serious illness, hospitalization or death.”
While there’s evidence omicron is resulting in about half as many deaths as the delta variant, Harris said the sheer number of new infections means deaths will continue to rise.
“Even if it’s half as deadly, if you have a variant that infects twice as many people you can see your numbers turn out to be the same,” Harris said. “You still have the same issues with it with a surge effect in your hospitals, and numbers of people getting sick or dying.”
Harris explained Alabama remains vastly less vaccinated against COVID than many other states. Alabama has the third lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the nation, and the second highest number of COVID deaths per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Complicating the state’s ability to save lives is the small amount of treatments the state has that have proven to work against omicron. Alabama has received just 780 courses of Pfizer’s monoclonal antibody treatment Sotrovimab, which does work to prevent many COVID hospitalizations if taken soon after a person is infected.
“And remember, we’re having five or six or 7,000 new cases per day,’ Harris said. “And once a week we’re getting 400 doses of this product, so there’s not nearly enough to go around.”
The federal government on Monday announced the resumption of shipments to states of two other monoclonal antibody treatments that worked on delta but not on omicron.
Harris said the Alabama Public Health Department recommends to health care providers that they prescribe Sotrovimab, however, rather than the two other monoclonal antibody treatments for those at greater risk, because of the prevalence of the omicron variant.
Alabama’s supply of one of two newly approved antiviral pills, Pfizer’s Paxlovid, is also very low, Harris said. The state is to receive around 500 or 600 doses of those pills every couple of weeks, he said.
“So that’s a challenging situation for us right now,” Harris said, noting production of all of those medications is ramping up and he believes supplies will increasing in the coming weeks.
COVID testing remains a problem in Alabama as well, adding to the state’s difficulty in fighting against the fast-spreading virus.
“Testing a huge problem for us,” Harris said. “You can see the sheer numbers of people who are out there seeking tests, and these are people who are getting tested because they feel sick and they want to test.”
The tests themselves are in short supply, Harris said, but county health departments are still testing people for COVID every day.
“Every day in every county in Alabama. Maybe not all day long every day,” Harris said.