Alabama’s COVID Death Toll Still Rising, but New Case Counts and Hospitalizations Trend Down

Though more people are dying in Alabama because of the COVID-19 virus, and particularly its delta variant, there may be signs of hope that the latest surge may be turning for the better.

In the periodic BirminghamWatch analysis of the state’s pandemic data, the death toll is increasing at the highest rate seen so far in the summer surge, with the 7-day moving average heading past peaks reached two weeks earlier.

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Wednesday on its online dashboard that 66 people died because of the COVID virus in the past day, matching a daily high set on Aug. 28. The 7-day average is now at 42.29 deaths per day, moving past a peak set on Sept. 1 but more than double the 19.57 eight days ago. The fatality reports have seen large swings due in part to the Labor Day holiday period, during which many reporting agencies were closed or operating with skeleton staffs.

The 14-day moving average, not as susceptible to the swings of the shorter-term measure, continues to inch its way upward, and stands at 35.21 as of Wednesday. That’s up slightly from a week prior.

The rate of new cases, however, is finally seeing a significant change to the better. After reaching an all-time high of 5,538 on Sept. 1, the 7-day average of daily cases has fallen by one-third. Wednesday’s average was down to 3,677.43, falling steadily in the last two weeks. Likewise, the 14-day average is also decreasing steadily, reaching 3,819.5 on Wednesday. That’s down by about one-fifth from a week ago, when the average set an all-time high of 4,749.86.

Wednesday’s ADPH report showed 3,651 new cases statewide.

And there’s good news for Alabama’s hospitals, which have been stretched beyond their limits during the delta surge. The number of statewide beds housing COVID patients on Tuesday stood at 2,401, down from 2,777 the previous Tuesday. That’s a drop of about 12% over the week. Forty-six are pediatric patients, and 21 of those are in ICU beds.

Of those patients, 84% have not received the COVID vaccine regimen, while 12% are fully vaccinated and 4% partially vaccinated. Those percentages have stayed steady for several weeks.

Intensive care units are still operating slightly over stated capacities. There are 1,592 patients occupying 1,549 ICU beds, with 48% of those infected with COVID.

The cumulative total of infection cases since the beginning of the pandemic passed the three-quarter million mark last week and stands at 757,893 as of Wednesday. The overall death toll is now up to 12,784.

So why are deaths increasing while new cases and hospitalizations are decreasing? Health care professionals have said from the beginning that the death toll is a lagging indicator of COVID trends, running anywhere from four to eight weeks behind the rise and fall in cases. That was the pattern established in the initial surge last winter, and it appears to be holding true in the current surge.

Death counts are still well below those seen in winter, when moving averages were in triple digits for much of January and February. Current averages are less than a third of the winter highs, largely because of the availability of vaccines that have stunted the severity of symptoms of those infected — while as many people are still testing positive for the virus, they aren’t as likely to suffer life-threatening symptoms.

The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center reports that 1,980,807 Alabamians have been fully vaccinated, which is 40.62% of the total population.

In Jefferson County, there were 2,440 new cases for the week ending Tuesday, an average of 348.57 per day. There were no COVID deaths reported by the county health department in the past week, and just three in the past two weeks.

BirminghamWatch uses data from the ADPH as published on its online dashboard for its analyses. Additional information comes from the Alabama Hospital Association, which publishes updates each weekday on its Twitter account.