Sixteen Morgan County residents have been reported this week as dying from COVID-19 and 40 so far this month, adding urgency to local efforts to administer the vaccine and prompting local health officials to applaud an extension of the statewide mask mandate announced Thursday.
The Alabama Department of Public Health this month also reported the COVID-19 deaths of seven Lawrence County residents and 18 Limestone County residents.
“We support the governor’s extension (of the mask mandate)”, said Decatur Morgan Hospital CEO Kelli Powers. “While we are encouraged by the decrease in hospitalizations, we are not out of the woods and we still have some extremely sick patients at the hospital.
"We hope that everyone could hang in there just a little longer so we can make sure that the most vulnerable members of our community get vaccinated.”
At its Parkway campus vaccine clinic this week, Decatur Morgan had administered 700 vaccine doses through Thursday and expected to administer another 180 today. Noel Lovelace, director of development at Decatur Morgan, said the hospital has scheduled 1,000 vaccine appointments and has received requests for appointments from another 2,200 people.
She said Decatur Morgan initially requested and received 1,800 doses from the state and has placed an order for another 1,200 doses “which we expect very soon.”
A limiting factor in administering vaccines locally is supply from the state, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the state can’t distribute more doses than it receives.
At a news conference Thursday that began with Gov. Kay Ivey announcing that the current emergency health order — including the mask mandate — will remain in effect through March 5 at 5 p.m., Harris explained that Alabama is receiving only 50,000 to 60,000 doses of vaccine per week “and we’ve been told that’s not going to change anytime soon.”
“Our county health departments who are doing vaccinations are under instructions now to do vaccines all day every day until they run out,” Harris said, and a long line of cars blocking one lane of U.S. 31 South on Thursday at the Morgan County Health Department attested to the fact.
ADPH spokesperson Arrol Sheehan on Thursday said the state calculates the number of doses it distributes to counties based on their population.
Harris said 202,643 doses had been administered in the state as of Wednesday night, which is 42% of the doses the state has received.
The bulk of the doses that have been received but not administered, he said, fall into three categories:
• They are second doses, which typically are delivered a week before they are due to be administered, and are being held in reserve.
• They are initial doses that are being reserved for people who already have an appointment to receive them. Appointments have been scheduled at county health departments through the end of this month.
• They are doses that have been administered, but the provider has failed to notify the ADPH of that fact. “All providers are already required to do this by federal rule, but we know many are not doing that,” Harris said. “Some are having technical challenges submitting that information, so we’re contacting them individually to know exactly how much vaccine each provider has.”
Harris said the ADPH this week began redistributing vaccine doses from some of the state’s 502 authorized vaccine providers who were not administering them quickly enough.
An ADPH hotline (1-855-566-5333) for scheduling vaccines has frequently been overwhelmed, Harris said, despite the fact that “we have 165 phone lines that are being answered when people call that number.” Part of the problem, he said, is that more than half of those calling are not 75 years old or older and thus are not eligible to receive a vaccine.
“Please don’t call if you’re not eligible currently,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for those we’re trying to reach right now.”
He said he expects an online appointment form to be in place on the ADPH website within a few days.
In addition to the ADPH hotline for scheduling vaccine appointments at all county health departments, local residents can schedule appointments at the following websites:
• Decatur Morgan Hospital: decaturmorganhospital.net or 256-973-2185
• Athens-Limestone Hospital: athenslimestonehospital.com
• Payless Pharmacy: www.pharmacy-decatur.com
Athens Primary Care is also a vaccine provider, but it is only giving the vaccine to its existing patients.
Harris said the state has reached an agreement with Walmart that it will begin administering some of the vaccine doses allocated to the state, primarily at Walmart pharmacies in counties that are struggling to administer the vaccine. He said the state is also in discussions with another major pharmacy chain.
A document released by the Biden administration Thursday encourages states to expand vaccine eligibility to those 65 and older. Harris said that would add 500,000 Alabamians to those currently eligible to receive the vaccine.
“So half a million more people are going to hear the message that it’s time for them to get the vaccine … and yet the amount we’re getting in the state each week is not going to change,” Harris said. “It will be challenging to communicate that message to people: that we want you to come in, that it’s your time to get it, and yet we still aren’t going to have enough to go around.”
As the state struggles with the vaccine rollout and local COVID-19 deaths mount, there are some positive signs.
New daily cases of COVID-19 are dropping locally: The rolling average of new Morgan County cases per day on Thursday was 58, down from its Dec. 23 peak of 179. Lawrence and Limestone counties have seen similar declines. The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive has also dropped. In Morgan County, the 14-day average positivity rate is now 21%, down from a peak of 59% on Jan. 5. Lawrence and Limestone counties have seen similar improvement.
COVID-19 hospitalizations at Decatur Morgan Hospital have dropped, although some of that is due to deaths. The hospital had 70 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 cases Thursday, but that included 10 who were on ventilators.
David Spillers is CEO of Huntsville Hospital System, which includes Decatur Morgan and Athens-Limestone hospitals. He said the downward trend in new cases and hospitalizations is good news, but if history is a guide there will probably be more spikes as people become less vigilant about avoiding transmission through masks, social distancing and hand hygiene.
He said the main concern he and other health officials have is that a coronavirus variant will become rampant in Alabama.
“That variant seems to be much more infectious than the current one,” Spillers said. “Although it’s not any more severe, it seems to spread much more easily. If that creates a spike in the number of people in the community with COVID, then you’ll have a spike to follow in hospitalizations.”
The variant has been detected in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including Georgia and Florida.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being out of the woods yet,” Spillers said.