Two years ago on Friday the Word Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and in the following two years 18,832 Alabamians died from the virus.
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and UAB healthcare epidemiologist Dr. Rachael Lee in a Friday briefing discussed the current state of COVID and looked back on lessons learned.
“It was actually exactly a year ago that I had a phone call with Dr. Lee and Dr. Marrazzo at UAB asking for advice about, what do we do? We’ve got a bunch of events coming up on the weekend with thousands of people coming to Birmingham. I think we need to do something,” Wilson said.
The following Monday the decision was made to take drastic action, Wilson said. Gatherings were reduced to 25 people, restaurants and bars were shut down and visitors were barred from nursing homes.
Attempts to control or slow spread of the virus early on were done with limited information on the new virus, and public health officials and state politicians early on worked together to battle COVID, Wilson explained.
That cooperation devolved in the following months as politics and misinformation infected the response. National arguments over masks and vaccines bled into Alabama, which has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at 50.3 percent.
Gov. Kay Ivey in November signed two anti-vaccine mandate bills into law, against the wishes of the Business Council of Alabama, which worried that the legislation would force businesses to comply with conflicting state and federal laws.
All the while, the virus surged and receded again and again, filing state hospitals, infecting more than a million Alabamians and leaving many with long term health impacts.
“Here in Jefferson County, 2,263 deaths,” Wilson said. “In addition to those deaths there have been many people suffering from long COVID symptoms, and of course everybody’s aware of many other problems we’ve had worsen, such as mental health problems, homicide, substance use and overdose deaths.”
“We’ve just all been through a lot. We’ve seen a great deal of disruption and collective pain as a community,” Wilson said.
Dr. Lee discussed the improving COVID numbers after the latest surge, driven by the more contagious omicron variant.
“I will tell everybody that we are still continuing to admit new patients with COVID-19, so it hasn’t gone away completely,” Lee said.
Wilson encouraged the public to monitor the CDC’s community level COVID tracking, which sets risk levels and makes recommendations for individual counties. He also encouraged the public to wear masks and get vaccinated, and booster shots, if eligible.
Asked what some of the greatest lessons learned during the first two years of the pandemic were, Lee said that from a scientific standpoint, the amount of information that has come through in terms of randomized controlled trials or retrospective studies is massive.
“We’ve been able to take questions regarding potential drug therapies and be able to very quickly run a randomized control trial and answer the question, is this a medication that we can use or not,” Lee said.
Wilson said more challenging is the societal lessons, peoples’ behavior and misinformation.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, and not as easy as we would have thought, but I think we have a lot more to learn about human behavior and societal behavior in reaction to these things,” Wilson said.