Morgan County’s COVID hospitalizations, new cases hit record highs
By Eric Fleischauer
For the Enquirer
The Alabama Department of Public Health recently reported 177 new cases of COVID-19 among Morgan County residents, the highest one-day total since the pandemic began.
The escalating numbers come as state health officer Dr. Scott Harris provided more details on the planned roll-out of a vaccine in the state.
Over the past week, an average of 124 Morgan County residents have tested positive for the coronavirus per day. Twenty-two percent of Morgan County’s 7,405 COVID-19 infections have come in the past two weeks. About 10-12 percent of people who test positive for the virus end up in the hospital, according to David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan Hospital.
Decatur Morgan Hospital reported 81 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 patients recently, the most it has ever had. Eight of the patients were in intensive care, including five on ventilators. Thursday, ADPH confirmed three more Morgan residents had died of the disease, bringing the cumulative death toll to 55.
The percentage of coronavirus tests that have come back positive is also at an all-time high in Morgan County, with a positivity rate of more than 46 percent in the last two weeks.
“Our numbers are trending up at an alarming rate,” Spillers said. He said the hospitalization numbers probably include no infections contracted over Thanksgiving, which generally won’t begin to result in hospitalizations for another one to two weeks. “What worries us is we’ll roll out of taking care of the increase in patients from Thanksgiving right into Christmas, where we’ll have opportunities for families to get together, a lot of shopping, a lot of things that get people close together.”
He said hospitals have to assume the number of COVID-19 patients will continue to increase, and he expects additional restrictions soon on hospital visitations throughout the Huntsville Hospital Health System.
“For the next couple of months until we get this under control, you just need to assume that no place is safe, and there’s no one that is safe. You don’t know,” he said. “There seems to be some perception that if I only have family members coming over to the house for dinner, it’s OK. It only takes one family member with 15 others to infect all 15.”
Harris said he hopes the state will begin receiving vaccine shipments in the middle of this month. He said in the first week, he expects Alabama to receive about 41,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to vaccinate 20,500 people, far fewer than initially expected. About a week after the first Pfizer shipment comes, he expects the state to receive about the same number of doses of the Moderna vaccine, which also requires two doses per person.
He said the highest priority for the vaccines will be the state’s 300,000 healthcare workers and about 30,000 nursing home residents and 30,000 nursing home staff, but there will not be enough vaccine doses in the early shipments to vaccinate those groups.
“We are going to do our best to reach everyone as quickly as possible, and yet we know there are going to be people who deserve it and need it who just aren’t going to have it right away,” Harris said.
He said it will be months before the vaccine is available for all Alabama residents.
Harris said the Pfizer vaccine will generally be shipped to larger cities, both because it requires specialized facilities than can store the vaccine at extremely low temperatures and because it comes in large shipments. Its comparatively short shelf life means the 975 doses that come in a shipment must be distributed quickly, which is less feasible in rural areas.
The Moderna vaccine, which is available in shipments of about 100 doses and can be stored in conventional freezers, will likely be the main vaccine used in rural areas, Harris said.
Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Emergency Management Committee, said if the Pfizer vaccine receives emergency use authorization from the FDA Dec. 10, as she expects, the first doses could be delivered to Alabama within a day.
She said hospitals expect to be able to order additional doses on a weekly basis, but it will take time before those doses are available to the general public.
In the meantime, she said, it remains critical that people social distance, wear masks and wash hands frequently. Any gatherings beyond the immediate family should be outside, she said.
“That stinks. I know. I would like to go to church. I would like to go out with my friends and have dinner. I would like to have a Christmas party with my family,” Nafziger said. “I just don’t think that’s going to be possible this year because I don’t want to infect them, and I don’t want to be infected. I want to make sure we keep everyone safe.”