MONTGOMERY — Alabama's state health officer on Tuesday said the highly infectious omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire in Alabama as the state sets record numbers for cases and local hospitalizations climb.
"We are unfortunately not in a real good place right now. We are seeing the highest daily case numbers we have seen since the pandemic began," State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a briefing with reporters.
"It is just spreading like wildfire," Harris said, adding that, "omicron will infect a very large number of people in Alabama before it finally subsides."
Local hospitalizations are also on the rise, with the number of COVID patients at Decatur Morgan Hospital climbing from 14 two weeks ago to 28 on Monday and 37 on Tuesday. Over the last two weeks Athens-Limestone Hospital went from four COVID patients to 11.
Alabama set new records for daily cases, hitting more than 8,000 a day Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health, and the average percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back as positive hit a new high of 38.5% Tuesday.
"So, we really need people to do the single most important thing they can do which is to be fully vaccinated and boosted when it's appropriate to do so," Harris said.
Over the last week, an average of 118 Morgan County residents have tested positive for the coronavirus per day. In Limestone County, an average of 82 have tested positive per day, followed by Lawrence County at 21 per day.
While early research suggests omicron causes less severe disease than earlier variants — such as the delta variant which Harris said had an estimated 2% fatality rate — he cautioned that some people will still get severely ill and the high infection rate means significant numbers could end up in state hospitals.
"We had 41 people die yesterday. We don't have that with the flu. We don't have that with common colds. It's just not the same thing," Harris said.
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has risen over the past two weeks from 831.71 new cases a day on Dec. 19 to 6,139.43 new cases a day on Sunday. The state ranks 29th in the country for new cases per capita.
There were more than 1,100 people in state hospitals with COVID-19 on Monday, far fewer than the 3,000 people hospitalized at the peak of earlier waves.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, on Monday said about 32% of hospitalized patients had been vaccinated, but he did not yet have numbers on what percentage had booster shots.
Williamson said the number of medical workers who are out because of COVID-19 or flu is "creating some staffing issues" at hospitals across the state.
Less than 48% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, giving Alabama one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates despite months of work by health officials to promote the shots.
With more than 16,450 dead of the illness, Alabama has the nation's third-highest death rate from COVID-19, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Many Alabama students returned to K-12 classrooms this week, although some systems opted for temporary remote learning. The Alabama Department of Public Health recommends students and educators wear masks, guidance that has remained unchanged.
The University of Alabama announced this week that people will be required to wear masks in most campus settings.