COVID ‘Surge’ Propels Alabama to 6th Place in New Cases Per Capita

COVID virus. Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Alabama is experiencing an upswing in COVID-19 cases. It’s not at this point as drastic as the January surge, but there’s one thing that makes the current crop of cases different.

The COVID BA.5 variant ­­is more contagious than the previous ones. People who have managed to get through 29 months of the pandemic without getting the virus are now turning up at doctor’s offices sick with COVID, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a press conference last week. She said doctors also are seeing more cases of reinfection – even among those who have been vaccinated and boosted.

“Cases are coming at us thick and fast,” Marrazzo said.

The BA.5 variant is different enough that it can weasel past immunity built up from other variants. More than 85% of cases being seen by doctors now are that newer variant, she said.

It’s slipping past enough immune systems in Alabama that the state now has the sixth-highest cases per capita among U.S. states. For every 100,000 people who live in Alabama, 43 of them have reported COVID infections in the past week, according to New York Times data. Ahead of Alabama are Alaska, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

The 7-day average of new cases reported per day for the past week was 2,904, and the state averaged 17 deaths per day, according to the Times data.

Johns Hopkins University reported that 75% of ICU beds in the state and 80% of all hospital beds in Alabama are currently occupied. One of the things public health doctors are most concerned about when discussing COVID is the availability of hospital beds for people who need them because of illness, accidents or COVID infection.

In total, Johns Hopkins University reported, 788 people hospitalized in Alabama are COVID-positive. Marrazzo said about half of the hospitalized patients in the state have COVID.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, there have been 954,615 hospitalizations in the state, Johns Hopkins reported. The state has lost 19,974 of its residents to death from COVID.

Vaccines and Protection

Because COVID spreads so easily, it’s also harder to prevent infections. Marrazzo recommended people become diligent about wearing masks indoors, and she cautioned them to be aware of their surroundings, the other people present and the state of the ventilation.

Another element in why so many people are now getting rebound COVID cases is that, while previous infections or vaccines protect to a point, immunity is not long lasting. It is waning by six months after the infection or a vaccine, just like with the flu.

She and Dr. David Kimberlin, co-division director of pediatric infectious diseases at UAB and the holder of an endowed chair in pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital, said the vaccines have been very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death among adults and children, though they aren’t as good at preventing infections.

Marrazzo said she expects in a week or two to hear more from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about what changes might be made to the vaccines. One of the recommendations likely will be adding a component specific to BA.5. But the wild card in vaccine production is what will be happening in the public by the time the vaccine is distributed.

Schools Starting Soon

Kimberlin said schools have not turned out to be the epicenter of COVID spread in the community, as some feared they would be. But he also said that when kids go back to school, they tend to get sick more often. It’s the same whether the virus is a cold or COVID. And most schools in the state are reopening without requiring masks, he said.

Kimberlin stressed that the vaccines have been 80% to 90% effective at stopping severe illness, hospitalization and death in children as well as adults.

However, he called the rate of children who are vaccinated “pitiful” in Alabama and “bad” across the country, and he encouraged parents to talk to their doctors about whether their child should be vaccinated.

At issue is not just the health of the children, but also their propensity to spread the disease to their families, including grandparents who might have underlying health conditions that put them at substantially higher risk from COVID, he said.

Kimberlin pointed out that this is the third August we’ve been talking about COVID as the beginning of school approaches, and he wouldn’t bet against there being a fourth year.

“The virus is with us; it will stay with us. And, therefore, we need to redouble our efforts to figure out how to live with this virus. That does not mean ignore it, that means really, truly figure out how to decrease our risk in a way that allows us to continue with our lives.”