HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — After a year many hope to forget, Alabama is seeing a number of positive trends regarding COVID-19 cases.
Statewide hospitalizations are hovering around 200 patients a day, down from 3,000 patients a day in early January, the percentage of positive tests – 3 percent — is the lowest it’s been since the pandemic started and the state is seeing about 200 new COVID-19 cases a day, with many counties regularly in single digits.
And, more than 1,400 health care providers have been allotted vaccine for their patients.
But there are also some concerns.
The state ranks 49th out of 50 in vaccinations per 100,000 residents. Thirty percent of state residents are fully vaccinated and the state has a lot of unused and apparently unwanted vaccine supply.
This comes at a time when scientists across the U.S. and internationally are expressing concern about the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said they are monitoring the new strain.
“The Delta variant is certainly easier to transmit than the Wild-type virus, you know, the original strain that we saw in this state starting March of 2020,” Harris said. “Whether the Delta variant causes worse disease, I think is a question still being studied, but there is a little bit of evidence that suggests that it does.
“The most important message around the Delta variant is current vaccines do work to protect you against it.”
That’s good news, unless you’re unvaccinated.
“We have, you know, more than a million doses in the state that are sitting here available, ready for someone to take,” Harris said. “We have enough vaccine that some of it is beginning to expire because it’s been here and there hasn’t been demand for it.
“It’s pretty frustrating, you know, that we aren’t seeing more demand.”
And, new paths for the virus can lead to more variants.
“Any time one person gets infected, any one person, there’s an opportunity for a new variant to develop that’s worse than we had before,” Harris said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to stop anyone from getting infected.
“Even young healthy people who maybe aren’t going to get very sick themselves, they run the risk of a variant developing that could be worse for someone else.”
But changing minds about the vaccine is an ongoing challenge, Harris said.
“I’m not sure what the best practices are,” he said. “The states that are doing really well have populations that believe the disease is worse than the vaccine, and the states that aren’t doing well have populations that think the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease.”
The issue of incentives to get vaccinated has also been raised in Alabama.
“Incentives are a real question,” Harris said. “We had a lot of buzz with, for example, we had the Talladega Super Speedway, chance to drive your car on the racetrack. You know we had media buzz from New York City, California, Japan news crew, we had live CNN coverage. It was terrific, except it didn’t really motivate that many people to come and get a shot. You know there weren’t that many people that showed up.”
Harris said some of the money that was sent to Alabama through the American Rescue Plan could be used to help pay for vaccination incentives. But, Harris said it has to be appropriated by the Legislature, which isn’t set to meet until 2022.
News 19 asked Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, about the possibility of the issue coming up if there is a special session on prisons this summer.
He said decisions on spending the federal dollars would likely occur through the normal budget process — next year.
Harris said Alabama has vaccinated three-quarters of Alabama residents, 65 and older, an age group that has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. He said ADPH feels good about reaching that many residents, but he added, the states that have done the best job vaccinating older residents have exceeded 90 percent of that population group.