MONTGOMERY — Alabama has averaged more than 100 deaths a day from COVID-19 over the last week, statistics showed Thursday, giving it the nation's highest death rate over the period even as hospitalizations linked to the coronavirus pandemic continue to decline.

The combined COVID death toll in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties as reported by the Alabama Department of Public Health climbed by 21 between Monday and Thursday. The cumulative COVID deaths in the three counties since the pandemic began is 621.

Statistics from Johns Hopkins University show 106 deaths were reported statewide daily over the past seven days, although some of those could have occurred earlier because of a lag in reporting. Alabama's rate of 18 deaths for every 100,000 people over the last week is far above second-place West Virginia, which had 10 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase in deaths comes as hospitalizations in the state fell below 1,800 patients for the first time in a month, a change health officials said likely was due to both people getting well and dying.

Local hospitalizations also have dropped slightly in recent days. Decatur Morgan Hospital on Wednesday had 65 COVID patients with 16 on ventilators, down from 76 COVID patients with 15 on ventilators Sept. 15. Athens-Limestone Hospital on Wednesday had 22 COVID patients including three on ventilators, down from 28 patients including six on ventilators Sept. 15.

While more people are getting vaccinated than before the highly contagious delta strain took hold, the state still has one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates, and its chief health officer said still more people need to get shots because the risk of getting infected remains high.

"Increasing vaccine rates remains critical to reduce cases of COVID-19," Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in a statement Thursday.

Nearly 13,800 people have died of COVID-19 in Alabama, according to state health statistics. The death count is the 16th highest nationally and fifth-highest per capita at nearly 280 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has declined by 1,011, a decrease of more than 25%. There were 949 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks ninth in the United States.

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