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Hospital COVID count grows, time of peak unclear

COVID-19 patients continue to occupy a growing number of hospital beds in Anniston and across Alabama as the delta variant continues to burn through the state — a virus wildfire that’s finding fuel in a state where a majority of people remain unvaccinated.

Twelve people have died of the virus this month alone at Anniston’s Regional Medical Center, according to Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital. Forty-two people lay in hospital beds in RMC’s two COVID wards Tuesday, eight of them on ventilators.

“It’s like it was this time last year,” Magadia said.

RMC on Tuesday announced a tightened visitation policy: Beginning Wednesday, patients will be allowed only one visitor, and the hospital will resume temperature checks to screen visitors for COVID at the door.

Statewide, more than 2,100 people were hospitalized with the virus, which has taken advantage of Alabamians’ unforced errors to stage an astonishing comeback.

In Calhoun County, 64 percent of eligible people have yet to get the first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, even though the shots are free and widely available. People are getting shots at twice the pace the state saw one month ago, but that pace is still slow. As of Tuesday morning, only 28 percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated.

The delta variant, on the other hand, moves faster than older versions of the virus, causing a backlog at local hospitals. Magadia said RMC now sees roughly three new COVID hospitalizations per day, but those who come to the hospital are sicker and stay sick longer than their predecessors in 2020.

Four of the hospitalized people at RMC are fully vaccinated, Magadia said —  a little less than 10 percent of all the people in the COVID ward. Magadia in the past has said that those patients tend to be immunocompromised by old age or pre-existing illnesses.

And doctors are increasingly concerned that people are reading the wrong message in the ‘breakthrough” COVID infections. Only a tiny fraction of people who are fully vaccinated come down with COVID-19 cases serious enough to bring them to the hospital, while the unvaccinated are as defenseless against the virus as they were when the pandemic began.

“We’ve been telling people all along that it’s not 100 percent protective, but it’s better than nothing,” Magadia said. In addition to his return to long hours on the COVID ward, Magadia last weekend traveled to Anniston churches, urging people to get their shots.

It’s a race against time, but Alabama in many ways is already behind. With two-dose vaccines, it takes the patient about six weeks to develop full immunity. Magadia said one patient now hospitalized was among those who heeded the warnings, last month, of a coming coronavirus wave. That patient got a first shot two weeks ago, but still came down with the virus.

Magadia said that shouldn’t discourage people from coming out for a shot.

“It’s never too late to start,” Magadia said of the vaccine series. “Just like it’s never too late to stop smoking.”

RMC CEO Louis Bass said hospital officials are talking about the possibility of discontinuing some medical prodecures if that’s what’s needed to make more room for patients in a COVID surge.

He said that if that happens, the change would likely run more smoothly than it did in 2020, when the state temporarily mandated an end to all elective surgeries.

Bass said much depends on the direction the virus is taking.

“It doesn’t appear to be letting up at this point,” he said.

Projections from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington show hospitalizations from the current COVID wave possibly exceeding numbers from last winter, with a peak sometime in late August.

It’s unclear whether those projections take the start of the school year into account. Most Anniston-area schools begin classes this week, or have already begun the school year. Only two local school systems — Anniston and Jacksonville — have announced plans to require students to wear masks.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, UAB pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. David Kimberlin said school systems should mandate masks. The delta variant of the disease spreads faster than any known major pathogen except measles, he said, and it can do serious harm to children.

“I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “This virus is the real deal and it does cause severe disease in children.”

Kimberlin said the ongoing surge of the virus is likely to be worse than earlier surges, due to the transmissibility of delta.

“I have a fear of what lies ahead,” he said.

He said he expects schools will implement mask orders eventually anyway, after school officials see the impact of COVID on kids.

“Why wait for it to get bad and then react to that?” he said.

Calhoun County’s official death toll from the virus stands at 336, a number that does not yet reflect all the deaths Magadia reported from RMC in August.

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