HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — On the eve of the holiday season Huntsville Hospital reports only a handful of patients are being treated for severe illnesses related to COVID-19.

Statewide hospital numbers are also down more than 100 cases from the same time a year ago, to below 200 patients statewide.

But, along the top of the state, Colbert, Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison and Jackson counties, had “medium” community levels, which means an increased impact from cases and hospitalizations, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

The numbers look favorable compared to last year, but COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spiked after Thanksgiving a year ago.

On November 22, 2021, we saw nine more COVID-19 patients than the 30 currently in Huntsville Hospital as of November 22, 2022.

Those 2021 numbers grew from 74 patients overall in the Huntsville Hospital system to 94 around a month later, to 514 patients by the end of January 2022. That marked a 594% jump in two months.

News 19 spoke to Dr. Wes Stubblefield, district medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health about the prospect of another spike in cases.

Dr. Stubblefield said a lot of things are different this year compared to last year. He said positive test numbers are relatively low and community levels are low across most of the state, though there are no guarantees problems won’t emerge.

“Many people have had, at least, their primary series when it comes to the COVID vaccine,” he said. “There is residual protection even if it’s not against infection — against hospitalization. Many people have also had COVID-19, potentially multiple times. The bivalent booster and then the lessening severity of the variants as opposed to the ancestral strain, sort of all play together. Maybe portending that we won’t have that, again, there’s no guarantee we won’t see another spike, especially as these variants mutate and are able to evade the immune system.”

Dr. Stubblefield said flu might be a more immediate concern this holiday season and there are precautions that make sense in certain circumstances for people at risk.

“Right now, flu is probably more of a threat than COVID,” he said. “Not because of the disease itself, but because it’s more widespread. We have more people hospitalized with flu right now than we did with COVID-19. We’ve seen rates that have been very high, we see widespread activity across the state and a very early season,” Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield continued by saying those very young, the older population or potentially people who have underlying medical conditions are the three risk groups as we head into the holidays. Those stretch across RSV, COVID-19 and Influenza.

ADPH records show there have been 1.54 million total cases of COVID-19 since 2020 and there have been  20,617 deaths.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that people should consider a mask if they are at-risk level and in the community level of medium or high. There are six North Alabama counties reportedly in that “medium” level, as mentioned earlier.

Dr. Stubblefield said a harsher COVID-19 strain could emerge, but the hope is that it will become like the flu, with vaccination and treatments available.

“There is no guarantee that either a previous strain won’t come back and go through the population, that’s not Omicron,” he said. “Our hope is that this is what the future holds for us is that this virus will become one of the seasonal coronaviruses, one of the circulating coronaviruses in the United States. We do have a vaccine, we do have effective treatments, we’ve learned how to take care of people, we know what people are at risk, so it is a much more manageable disease than it was two and a half years ago.”

For more information on the current state of COVID-19 in Alabama, check the ADPH website.