MONTGOMERY, Ala — Alabama's rapid rise in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 appears to have stabilized, yet the state still faces the "real crisis" of an overwhelming number of patients needing intensive care, nearly all of whom aren't vaccinated, the chief health officer said Friday.
After threatening to reach an all-time high for hospitalizations during the coronavirus pandemic, state hospitals have seen a slight decline in recent days, said Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Overall hospitalizations dropped below 2,700 on Thursday for the first time in more than a week, he told a news briefing.
"We have had a little bit of a plateau over the last week. I'm very thankful for that. The numbers aren't great. But the numbers at least have not continued to go up," he said.
Still, unvaccinated people sick with COVID-19 and a relatively small number of vaccinated people who contracted the illness continue to need more intensive care beds than the state has, he said. Patients who normally would be treated in ICU wards are instead being cared for in emergency rooms, normal beds or even gurneys left in hallways, he said.
"We continue to have a real crisis in Alabama with our ICU bed capacity," Harris said. "Yesterday there were about 60 or so more patients requiring ICU care than we have ICU beds in the state."
While Harris said Alabama's vaccination numbers have improved in recent weeks as the state recorded double-digit deaths daily for a month or so, just under 40% of the state's residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 53% nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With vaccine demand increasing, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine said they would open two drive-through vaccination sites in the Birmingham metro area. Still, health officials are frustrated with the way disinformation spread online, conspiracy theories and other factors are keeping vaccination numbers lower than needed to stop the pandemic.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who rose to prominence treating patients on the Alabama coast, told a briefing Thursday that she is "still preaching" to get members of her own family to accept the vaccine. Trust seems to have eroded as she tries to build relationships with patients in discussions about COVID-19, she said.
"The best thing is just to listen and listen to patients when they have real concerns, particularly about misinformation. We try to clear it up," Benjamin said.
More than 12,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Alabama, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University. The death count is the 17th highest in the country overall and the eighth highest per capita at roughly 257 deaths per 100,000 people, and Harris said about 90% of those dying weren't vaccinated.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has remained mostly constant around 3,827 per day. Hospitals are seeing younger and sicker patients than at any time during the crisis, Harris said.
There were about 1,222 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks fifth in the country.