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Calhoun County identifies first Delta case; virus could become ‘wildfire,’ UAB scientist warns

Doctors identified Calhoun County’s first confirmed case of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 this week as the virus continues to spread among the unvaccinated, health officials said Wednesday. 

“The situation looks a lot like April or May of last year,” said Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist at Regional Medical Center in Anniston.

Magadia said Wednesday that the hospital now has nine patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including three who arrived at the hospital overnight. All but one of the hospitalized patients is unvaccinated, he said. It’s a sharp rise from the three who were in the hospital last week.

Statewide, more than 500 people were hospitalized with COVID on Wednesday, a number that has doubled since the beginning of the month. In Calhoun County, 67 percent of people have not had even one shot of the coronavirus vaccine, and the rate of new vaccinations slowed to a crawl weeks ago.

Magadia saw signs earlier this month that the fast-spreading Delta variant of the virus had arrived in Calhoun County, as patients began to show up as the hospital sicker than past patients, and with less time between their first symptoms and their arrival at the hospital. For the most part, RMC doesn’t test for variants, but the doctor said the hospital confirmed its first case this week.

Crucially, that case was found in a woman who had initially tested negative for any form of the virus. Doctors had moved her to the hospital’s COVID ward because her symptoms were consistent with the virus, then found Delta in a test.

Magadia said the negative early test raises the possibility that the Delta variant is harder to detect than other strains of the virus.

University of Alabama at Birmingham lab tests of samples collected around the state earlier this month showed the Delta variant was likely the dominant strain in Alabama. UAB epidemiologist Dr. Rachael Lee, in a Zoom meeting with reporters Wednesday, said UAB’s hospital has seen a surge, up from six patients before Independence Day to 38 people hospitalized Wednesday.

“This may be the beginning of a wildfire, and what we know about wildfires is that they are unpredictable,” Lee said.  “Some we can contain, and some we cannot.”

COVID task force reconvenes

Calhoun County’s Emergency Management Agency reconvened its coronavirus task force Wednesday, members of the task force said. The group regularly planned and briefed the public on the local COVID response at the height of the pandemic. Wednesday’s virtual meeting was the first time the group convened since March. 

“Statewide cases have increased and the county’s cases have increased,” said Myles Chamblee, director of the Calhoun County EMA. 

Locals still refuse vaccines

Health officials have a weapon against the virus that they didn’t have this time last year: vaccines that prevent serious COVID cases in nearly all who take them. Resistance to the vaccines remains strong.

Magadia said he had a conversation with a hospitalized COVID patient recently who said she wouldn’t get the shot in the future, despite having caught the virus. He said that even in her hospital bed, she was convinced the side effects of the vaccine were worse than the virus itself. He said she was relying largely on things she’d heard from friends and family. The woman was struggling to breathe during the conversation, he said.

“We agreed to disagree,” he said. “And I had to step back.”

COVID-19 has killed more Alabamians than every American war since World War I. As of Wednesday morning, more than 11,000 people in the state had died of the disease.

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