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Back to the ventilator

Calhoun County COVID-19 hospitalizations double as virus spreads faster

The ventilator, dreaded symbol of the worst symptoms of COVID-19, is pumping again in Anniston. 

On Monday morning, two COVID patients were breathing with the assistance of a machine at Anniston’s Regional Medical Center. Six more were in hospital beds, not sick enough for the ventilator but too sick to go home. 

A week ago, there were just three patients in the hospital’s COVID ward. 

“It’s beginning to look a little like August or December of last year,” said Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist who regularly makes the rounds of the hospital’s COVID patents. 

The increase in COVID patients at RMC is no isolated phenomenon, and it’s no surprise. 

Doctors earlier this month warned that the arrival of the more-contagious Delta variant of coronavirus, combined with Alabama’s low vaccination rate, could lead to a new surge in the virus.

Around two-thirds of people in the state have yet to get a single shot of COVID vaccine. Calhoun County’s vaccination rate is close to that statewide number. Neighboring Cleburne County is the second-least-vaccinated county in the state, where 77 percent of residents haven’t had a single vaccine dose. 

Even in less-immunized Alabama, many people regarded the Independence Day holiday as a celebration of post-pandemic normalcy. Two weeks later, the picture looks very different.

Across the state, 496 people lay in hospital beds with COVID on Monday, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health. That’s double the number the state saw on Independence Day weekend.

In Anniston, Magadia said, only one of the eight hospitalized patients is fully vaccinated. That patient is 75 years old.

Another recent hospitalized patient, he said, had a single shot in March but was told by a doctor to wait before getting a second dose after an unrelated illness. She never went back for the final shot. 

“I asked her why, and she said, ‘I just forgot,” Magadia said. 

Magadia has asked other patients why they haven’t gotten around to it. Some cite stubbornness, others uncertainty about the vaccine. Nearly all say they wish they’d gone through with the shot. 

“They feel really bad,” Magadia said. “I mean, they’re a little embarrassed, but they also feel bad medically. They don’t want to feel like this again — this feeling like you’re drowning.” 

Months ago, doctors were saying they hoped to see the public reach “herd immunity,” the point at which so many people are vaccinated that the spread of the virus is seriously hobbled — making the world somewhat safe even for people who’ve never had a shot. 

It’s unclear how much of the public would need to be immunized to reach herd immunity, but all the estimates so far have come in well higher than Alabama’s current immunization rate. Magadia is quick to point out that people who haven’t been immunized are just as susceptible to the virus as they were months ago.

Over the past year, doctors have often warned about holiday get-togethers possibly spreading the virus. Magadia said he doesn’t see any evidence the current group of patients got the illness from large gatherings. It’s still possible to catch it just from routine interactions — if you’re unvaccinated.

“It’s here among us,” he said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.