The New COVID-19 Vaccine Has Arrived, but the Virus Still Is Spreading Throughout Alabama

As the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines make their way into hospitals across Alabama, the post-Thanksgiving rise in the state’s numbers continued in the past week, with the number of deaths attributed to the virus surpassing the 4,000 mark statewide.

In BirminghamWatch’s weekly analysis of the trends in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, all but one of the measures of the pandemic’s effects again reached new highs. The 7-day moving average of cases reached 3,502.43 new cases per day, while the 14-day average stood at 3,419.71 per day, up more than 17% from seven days prior. All-time highs were set Sunday on both of those measures.

Northeast Alabama continues to record high numbers, but now hotspots are showing up close to the Gulf Coast. Clarke County, which is just north of Baldwin County, reported the state’s highest total, at 492 new cases over the past 14 days. When the numbers are adjusted to fit the standard measurement of cases per 100,000 people, Clarke County had a per capita rate of 2,056.9 new cases during the period. That’s just above Jackson County in far northeast Alabama, which had 1,044 cases over the same period, for a rate of 2,017.9 per 100,000. Ironically, the state’s lowest cases per capita number comes just to the west of Clarke, as neighboring Choctaw County had a rate of just 171.3 new cases per 100,000.

Positivity rates are a growing problem all across the northern third of Alabama, with every county except two — Madison and Cherokee — showing rates of 40% or more over the past 14 days. Marion County’s rate is worst in the state at 62.21%, with 298 positive readings from 479 tests given. Only Russell and Coosa counties in the lower two-thirds of the state also showed 40% rates or more.

The positivity rates are moving higher in metro Birmingham, with Walker County’s reading at 50.9% and Blount County at 48.14%. Jefferson County’s positivity rate continues to climb as well, standing at 35.63%, near the all-time high.

Hospitalization numbers are still on the rise, as the statewide total of COVID inpatients reached a new record of 2,353 Tuesday, the most recent number for which complete data was available. That’s more than double the number of inpatients over the previous 30 days. UAB Hospital reported 171 inpatients Wednesday. The Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes facilities in several North Alabama counties, had 430 inpatients Wednesday, with 199 in two Madison County hospitals and 82 in Decatur Morgan Hospital. DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa reported 159 positive inpatients Wednesday.

The death toll is still rising across Alabama, with 4,198 people killed by the coronavirus since records started being kept in March. However, the 7-day moving average drifted downward. The 7-day average on Wednesday stood at 30.43 new deaths per day, down from last week’s average of 39.14 deaths a day. The 7-day average of daily deaths hit a peak of 44.86 on Dec. 7.

The 14-day average is now at 34.79, slightly higher than last week’s 14-day average of 32.36 deaths per day. The state hit a record for 14-day averages on Dec. 5, when 37.86 were reported.

Health care officials across the state and nation are lauding the arrival of the new Pfizer vaccine, which is being shipped to large hospitals that are equipped to store it at the extreme cold temperatures needed to avoid spoilage. The vials are shipped at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, and once they are removed from that storage, either within a minute and a half they must be placed in special freezers that use dry ice, or they must be put into refrigerators to thaw for no more than five days.

The Moderna vaccine, for which shipments are expected to begin in the next few days, can be stored at temperatures that standard household freezers and refrigerators provide. So that vaccine will be distributed first to hospitals and other health care providers in rural areas that don’t have ultra-cold storage readily available.

Both vaccines are first being given to front-line health workers, followed by those in senior-care facilities and to other groups that are most vulnerable. When the vaccines will be available to the general public has not yet been determined.

BirminghamWatch uses COVID-19 data for its weekly analysis from the Alabama Department of Public Health, which is released to the public daily on its online dashboard.