The severity of the latest wave of COVID-19 is reflected not just in the number of infected patients at Decatur Morgan Hospital but their age, according to CEO Kelli Powers.
An infected 18-month-old with severe symptoms came to the emergency room last week, she said, and among the 26 infected patients on Monday was a 38-year-old on a ventilator. The number of hospitalizations was up from 19 on Friday and 15 the previous Monday.
“We have a lot of people who are on their death bed begging for the vaccine, but at that point it’s too late,” Powers said at a news conference at Decatur City Hall on Monday. “We’re starting to see children, which is very concerning to me, when you see children with it that can’t be vaccinated — babies and under 12s.”
People ages 12 and up are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, with those 18 and up eligible for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
“Last year we rarely had children. This delta variant leaves no one out. … More and more children are becoming positive,” Powers said. “The solution is for people to get vaccinated. Under 12, they can’t get vaccinated. So we have to get vaccinated to protect them.”
Powers said health officials expect to see a spike in cases soon as schools resume. Athens City Schools is the only school system in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties with a mask mandate.
“I think we’re going to see more and more spread. I’d just encourage everybody to wear their mask. I know we don’t have a mask mandate, but definitely if you haven’t been vaccinated you need to wear your mask and social distance,” she said.
Michael Glenn, assistant administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said the risk to children is not confined to schools.
“You can have a mask on all day long and be surrounded with Plexiglas all day long, and wash your hands every five minutes, but when you go home those other 16 hours a day and you’re around people that are not vaccinated, that have been out in the community with other people that are not vaccinated, those kids are not being protected,” he said.
About 32% of Morgan County residents are fully vaccinated, and about 39% have received one of two shots.
“If you have missed your second dose of vaccine for whatever reason, it’s not too late to get that dose,” Glenn said. “You’re not fully protected until you’ve had both doses of the vaccine, and then it’s two weeks since that last dose that you get full protection.”
Powers said the average age of COVID patients at Decatur Morgan is much lower with the delta variant than it was with earlier strains of the virus. Of the 26 hospitalized Monday, she said most were in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
Powers said 27% of the Decatur Morgan patients with COVID-19 are “breakthrough” cases who are fully vaccinated, but they generally are not as sick as the patients who have not been vaccinated.
In Morgan County, the positivity rate — that is, the percentage of people who are tested for the virus and have it — is 16.1% over the last seven days, compared to 24.3% statewide. Over the last week, an average of 37 Morgan County residents have tested positive for COVID per day, according to ADPH data.
“We’re not headed in a favorable direction,” said Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling.
Athens City Hall is closed until further notice due to a large number of COVID-19 infections, but Bowling said there are no immediate plans to close Decatur City Hall.
While Huntsville Hospital last week ended elective surgeries due to the large number of COVID patients, Decatur Morgan has not “and we don’t want to,” Powers said.
Statewide, COVID hospitalizations are also increasing dramatically.
On Monday, there were 2,134 patients, inckluding 33 children, with COVID-19 in state hospitals. There were 628 patients in intensive care units and 318 on ventilators, according to numbers provided by the Alabama Hospital Association. Hospitalizations reached their peak in January with about 3,000 patients.
The state had 87 intensive care unit beds available Monday, or 6%, according to Dr. Don Williamson, Alabama’s former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association. By comparison, the state had 3% available at the worst part of the pandemic in January.
“It’s like the California wildfires. We have the perfect environment,” Williamson said.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has nearly doubled over the past two weeks from 1,495 new cases per day on July 24 to 2,829 new cases per day on Saturday.
Alabama ranks fifth in the country for new cases per capita, behind Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Powers said hospital staff are struggling as they watch the number of COVID patients rise.
“Our nurses and staff, they do a great job, but they’re exhausted. I see it on their faces every day,” she said. “… It’s one thing if you want to take care of someone who has been vaccinated and still gets COVID. But for someone to just not take the vaccine and then get really, really sick, I think that’s frustrating but it’s also depressing at some point to know that someone might not live.”