Health officials warned Wednesday that Alabama may be headed toward an explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases, similar to the pattern last year when there were thousands of new cases every day.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said the rise in the number of cases and hospitalizations from the coronavirus reflects a rapid spread of the highly infectious Delta variant and Alabama’s low rate of vaccination.
As the pandemic spread last summer, she said, there was an increase in the number of cases, followed by a rising rate of hospitalizations and then deaths.
“We are starting to see that trend and are very, very concerned, given the situation that we sustained, particularly in Montgomery and Mobile last summer, that we might be there again,” Marrazzo said.
Less than one-third of Alabama’s population has been vaccinated for the coronavirus, Marrazzo said, and the infection rate is rising even though the number of people being tested for COVID-19 has dropped significantly in recent months.
“You look at some states with 70%, nearly 80% vaccine coverage, and you’re not seeing the kinds of trends that we’re talking about in some other states,” she said. “This is not predictive rocket science. This is exactly what we saw before, and in the face of a very low level of full immunization in the state … that is a very feasible scenario that we need to be prepared for.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported that 1.53 million people in the state have been fully vaccinated. The state has a population of about 5 million.
Marrazzo said the Delta strain of the coronavirus spreads much more easily than the original virus did, and studies suggest a person can become infected after only five seconds of exposure to someone carrying it.
The good news, she said, is that all three of the vaccines appear to be effective against the Delta strain. There are exceptions, she said, but even in those cases, the vaccines seem to stave off severe cases of the illness and lessen long-term complications.
The state has averaged 169 new cases a day over the past week, according to figures released Wednesday by ADPH. The daily average reached a high of 4,418 cases on Jan. 4 but had dropped to 96 new cases per day during the week ending June 23. It rose to 110 on June 25, 160 on June 28 and 188 on July 7.
The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus also is on the rise, from 167 on June 18 to 200 on June 30 and 235 on July 6. The peak was 3,084 on Jan. 11.
There have been 552,911 cases of COVID-19 in Alabama since the pandemic began in March 2020. There have been 11,387 deaths from the disease, including 35 over the past week.
There has been a similar pattern in Jefferson County.
The county Department of Health said the rate of new cases per day more than doubled from 90 the week of June 13 to 190 the week of June 27.
“This increase is likely due to a combination of more contagious variants, including the highly infectious Delta variant, and the low rate of vaccine uptake in Jefferson County,” the department said. It said 35.3% of the county’s population has been fully vaccinated.
With the increased spread of the virus, the Health Department said it ”strongly endorses vaccination for individuals ages 12 and older.”