When the month of July began, the COVID pandemic looked like it was well on its way to shrinking to controllable numbers. People across Alabama and the nation celebrated the Fourth of July holiday much as they had before the virus, crowding beaches and other vacation hotspots without wearing face masks.
And the Alabama Department of Public Health cut back its daily reporting of pandemic data to three times a week — despite the threat of the Delta variant looming on the horizon.
As July draws to a close, the picture of the pandemic has changed completely. The Delta variant has spread in full force, and the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed.
In the Birmingham Watch periodic analysis of current COVID data trends, the 7-day moving average of new cases stands at 1,931.43 per day, including an ADPH report of an additional 2,726 cases on Wednesday. The all-time total of virus infections since the pandemic began last year climbed to 577,463.
That contrasts with the numbers on July 1, when the total stood at 550,983 cases. The 7-day average was 277 cases per day, and five days later it dropped to 121, which was the lowest level since the very early days of the pandemic.
But since that low point three weeks ago, the average has increased by a factor of 15. And the 14-day average, which is designed to smooth out big data moves up or down, is now at 1,521.43 — nine times higher than its July 6 low point.
Likewise, the number of hospitalized COVID patients in Alabama has also risen sharply, increasing by an average of 10% per day for the last week. As of Wednesday afternoon, 1,181 hospital beds were occupied by those actively infected by COVID, up by 98 from the previous day. Since June 20, when hospitalizations had dropped to a year-to-date low of 166, the statewide total is now more than seven times higher, and it’s almost doubled in the past seven days alone.
The sudden rebound of the virus has put health officials back on defense, stepping up the drumbeat even more of their overarching message: vaccinations across the state are still way too low to bring COVID spread to a halt, and too many people are steadfastly refusing to get the shots.
That may be changing for the better for Alabama, if only slightly. The number of vaccinations being administered each day has also doubled in the past three weeks, with the 7-day average moving from 4,421 on July 8 to 9,047 on Monday. The overall percentage of fully vaccinated residents is still lagging, with the state ranked at or near the bottom of most rankings.
Despite the sharp hike in cases and hospitalizations, the number of statewide deaths attributed to COVID still remains relatively low. The ADPH report on Wednesday showed 48 deaths over the past seven days, up from 10 the previous week. Eighteen deaths were reported on Wednesday, the highest daily number in two weeks. Still, fatalities have stayed within a small range for roughly a month, with the 7-day average at 6.86 deaths per day and the 14-day average at 5.07. Health officials expect that number to rise along with the increases in the number of new cases and hospitalizations. Rising death tolls have typically trailed the other two indicators by three to five weeks during this pandemic.
The Delta variant is badly affecting not only Alabama, but nearly every state in the nation. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention walked back its previous recommendation on wearing face masks, now saying that everyone — fully vaccinated or not — should wear masks indoors if they are in “high-risk” areas. That criterion currently applies to everywhere in Alabama except Perry County.
Shortly after the CDC announcement, the Birmingham City Schools announced that all students, faculty and staff would be required to wear face masks when they return to school next week. So far, the system is the only one in the metro area to announce this restriction.
Some cities, counties and large employers are also reverting to face mask requirements. President Joe Biden is apparently ready to go a step further soon, as NBC News reports that he will soon announce requirements that federal workers must be vaccinated or face stringent testing procedures.
For now, Gov. Kay Ivey has not put mask mandates back in place. Her previous restrictions were lifted in April.