The COVID-19 death toll in Morgan County hit 100 after increasing by 10 on Wednesday, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, even as the state struggles to administer the vaccines it has been allotted.

“I grieve over the rising death total in our community," said Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling, who is in quarantine with mild symptoms after testing positive Friday. "Those are fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers who will never again be with their families. The totals are alarming, and I am devastated for the families who have lost loved ones."

Morgan County's first reported COVID-19 death was May 11. Forty-two new deaths have been reported over the last 30 days. Decatur Morgan Hospital on Wednesday had 84 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 patients, down from last week. Ten were in intensive care, including seven on ventilators.

Judy Smith, administrator of the Northern District of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said the drop in COVID-19 patients at the hospital is not a positive development.

"The hospital numbers have gone down some, but for all the wrong reasons. They're not going home. They're not going to their earthly homes," she said. 

She said the death toll in the county is alarming.

"It's devastating for the community. It's devastating for the families. It's such a tragedy, and we all play a huge role in not letting this happen," Smith said. "Until we can get vaccine in enough people to stop this, we've just got to all do our part" in limiting transmission of the virus through social distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene. 

ADPH also on Wednesday reported the COVID-19 related death of one resident of Limestone County, bringing its cumulative total to 59, and one Lawrence County resident, bringing that county's total to 44.

As of Saturday, the most recent data available from the ADPH, 42,810 vaccinations had been administered in Alabama out of 226,250 allotted to the state. It ranks at the bottom of the nation in the rate of vaccinations along with Mississippi, Georgia, Michigan, Kansas and Arizona, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Decatur Morgan Hospital has administered 612 vaccines, and on Wednesday gave the second of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to those who received the first dose three weeks ago. Another 250 first-shot vaccinations are being administered today.

“We are working on ramping it up and having more than one clinic a week if we can get it staffed,” said Decatur Morgan’s director of development Noel Lovelace. Staffing has been an ongoing problem. As of Monday, 92 Decatur Morgan Hospital staff members were in quarantine.

The Morgan County Health Department began administering vaccines to health care workers, including school nurses, on Dec. 28. As of Wednesday, it had administered 263 doses.

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Vaccination plan

Under a revised vaccination plan issued Wednesday by ADPH, vaccinations are to be administered in the following order:

• Front-line clinical and non-clinical health workers in hospitals and nursing homes, and workers in other health care settings providing services with a risk of exposure to fluids and aerosols. Nursing home residents are also included in this highest priority, but their vaccines are being administered separately by national pharmacy chains.

• Essential workers at highest risk for work-related exposure and persons 75 years old and over.

• People ages 65 to 74 and people ages 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions.

• The general population.

The state has not received enough vaccines to cover all of the 377,000 people in the highest priority group. ADPH has provided no timeline on when it will advance to the second group, although State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said that should begin soon. He has previously said he hoped to begin vaccinations of the general population in the spring.

“The vaccine is coming," Harris told The Associated Press. "Even though the number of shots in arms is not as great as we would like, we believe most of the reasons for that have been worked out and are behind us. We are going to start adding additional groups of people very soon and will announce that very soon.”

Smith said different counties may begin giving vaccinations to the elderly population at different times.

"Counties will probably go at different paces based on how they've been able to respond to their front-line health care workers," she said. "Some counties are just smaller and don't have as many front-line health care workers, whether it's in private offices or hospitals. I think you're going to see that over the next two weeks that multiple counties will begin to dip their toes in expanding their vaccinations to other people."

Calhoun County has already expanded vaccinations to people 75 and older.

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Allergic reactions

Somewhat slowing the rollout even among health care workers, especially non-physicians, has been a reluctance to be vaccinated based on reports of allergic reactions.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, on Wednesday said there were 21 confirmed cases of anaphylaxis among the 1.9 million doses administered during the first 10 days of the vaccination program, a rate about nine times the adverse reaction rate for flu vaccines.

“The anaphylaxis rate for COVID-19 vaccines may seem high compared to flu vaccines, but I want to assure you it’s still a rare outcome,” Messonnier said in a news conference Wednesday. She said 17 of the 21 people who had an anaphylaxis reaction had a history of allergic reactions, including to drugs or medical products, foods and insect stings.

“This means that right now the known and potential benefits of the current COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the known and potential risks of getting COVID-19,” she said.

Anaphylaxis, the onset of which is usually within 15 minutes of the vaccine being administered, is treatable. Post-shot observation times to guard against such reactions have contributed to the slow rollout of the vaccine locally and nationally.

Dr. Rachael Lee, a UAB Hospital epidemiologist and assistant professor in UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said other factors have also slowed the rollout. 

“The process of giving out the vaccines is incredibly difficult,” Lee said Wednesday. “First you need to identify who needs it. Then you have a lot of information that needs to be filled out for the state health departments. You need to be able to make sure they don’t have symptoms of COVID, and then they need to go to an area where they can be monitored for 15 minutes.

“That process requires space. It requires multiple people to help, and then there are only certain people who can give vaccines. Because a lot of people have been allocated to go and care directly for COVID patients, it’s difficult to make sure we have enough people.”

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eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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