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Hartselle Enquirer

Large gatherings have health officials ‘shivering in our boots’

By Eric Fleischauer

For the Enquirer

North Alabama is at risk for an even higher rate of COVID-19 infections, according to a health official, after thousands attended a concert in Cullman and even more gathered for a rally that featured former President Donald Trump.

“We are absolutely shivering in our boots,” said Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District. “We have great concern.”

She said 41 percent of recent COVID cases are between the ages of 21-49.

“That’s probably the majority of what went to Rock the South,” she said of the concert that took place Aug. 13-14. “Sadly enough, we’re pulling our teams together right now to do additional testing because we know it’s going to happen. It’s not going to be just Cullman County. Those folks, if they gave it to each other … took it back to their counties.”

Statewide and locally, COVID hospitalizations continue to climb.

There were 2,631 Alabamians hospitalized with COVID Aug. 16, the highest since Jan. 20. Hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 29, according to ADPH data.

Decatur Morgan Hospital had 32 COVID patients Aug. 16, up from 13 two weeks before. Athens-Limestone Hospital had 10 COVID patients, up from six two weeks before.

While Decatur Morgan numbers have climbed steadily in recent weeks, Athens-Limestone — which had 15 COVID patients Aug. 10 — has had more erratic changes.

Athens-Limestone officials, however, said the virus is an increasing problem, and they renewed calls for people to get vaccinated.

“Since July 1, 2021, a high percentage of our hospital admissions for COVID-19 were unvaccinated. We know that some of these patients will leave the hospital with long-term complications and others will, unfortunately, die from their infections,” according to a statement by Dr. Jon Bignault, president of the medical staff, and other hospital officials.

While Smith expressed concerns about gatherings such as those in Cullman, she lauded Decatur City Schools for the mask mandate it imposed on schools and buses.

“I have great commendations for (Deputy Superintendent) Dwight Satterfield for standing up and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this. Yes, we’re going to teach these kids, but our job is also the protection of these children.’ I also understand the backlash the administrative folks are getting in various places,” Smith said.

Athens City Schools announced a mask mandate before classes began. DCS did so after seven days of classes. Morgan County Schools did the same beginning Aug. 16.

Other school systems in Limestone and Lawrence counties have not mandated masks in classrooms, but an increasing number are following a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that they require students and staff wear masks on buses.

Assistant state health officer Dr. Karen Landers Monday said the Delta variant of the coronavirus is responsible for about 90 percent of recent COVID infections, based on Alabama samples analyzed by the CDC, and the Delta variant differs from previous variants that were dominant in the state.

“We are dealing with a virus that is a bit different from the original that we saw in terms of the transmissibility, the ability to adhere to the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat behind the nose), the ability to really wreak more havoc,” she said.

One of the most significant challenges posed by the Delta variant is that it is more easily transmitted by adults and children who are infected but asymptomatic.

“If you’re asymptomatic, you’re not necessarily going to go get tested,” Landers said. “I think we need to educate and remind parents and caregivers that asymptomatic transmission and asymptomatic cases obviously do occur.

“We must get away from the misunderstanding that children cannot transmit COVID, because they can,” Landers added, “and that children do not get sick from COVID, because they do.”

The heightened risk of asymptomatic transmission, along with the risk of breakthrough infections among those who have been vaccinated, is a major reason health officials are urging people to wear masks even if they have been vaccinated.

“Your vaccination is protecting you not only from getting infected in the first place from Delta, but should you get infected, and you have what’s called a breakthrough infection, your chance of going into the hospital – getting that sick – is less than 2 percent,” said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases at UAB. “And if you get really sick in the hospital, your chance of going into the ICU compared to other people is less than 0.5 percent.”

Saag said people should wear masks in indoor public spaces and in large crowds if they can’t be avoided.

Smith said the looming problem as the Delta variant spreads with increasing speed in north Alabama is most residents are not fully vaccinated.

In Morgan County, 68 percent of residents are not fully vaccinated; in Limestone and Lawrence counties, that figure sits at 66 percent and 71.6, respectively, according to ADPH data.

Statewide, 67.5 percent of the population has not been fully vaccinated.

“We’ve got a state here that has the highest positivity rate and lowest vaccination rate of any state in the nation,” Smith said. “We have to do something about this. We can’t continue to let our people die, to let our people be sick. Our hospitals across the state are overrun.”

Smith said waiting to get a vaccine until after being exposed to the virus does not work. Full protection does not kick in until two weeks after the final dose of the vaccine, which means a five-week lag time from the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and a six-week lag time for Moderna.

“You’ve got to start now to have that full protection,” she said. “The solution is in the hands of the people in terms of what we do.

“The greatest solution, the greatest gift we’ve got, is vaccination.”

 

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