Regional Medical Center in Anniston was working to reopen its second COVID-19 ward Monday as hospitalizations for the illness continue to increase. Recently admitted COVID patients are waiting in the emergency room, a doctor at the hospital said.
There are now 29 people at the hospital being treated for COVID. A month ago, you could count hospitalized coronavirus patients on one hand. The vaccination rate in Calhoun County has barely budged in the last month, even as the virus has spread faster.
“This is totally preventable,” said Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist who works with RMC’s COVID patients.
Of the 29 currently hospitalized patients, 26 are unvaccinated. Of the three who are vaccinated, one is more than 80 years old and two have serious underlying medical conditions. “We are talking about people who are severely immunocompromised,” Magadia said.
Ten of the patients at RMC are on ventilators.
Magadia said interviews with patients suggest they’re picking up the virus at stores and through out-of-state travel.
Hospitalizations up statewide
Across the state, 1,451 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sunday afternoon, a sevenfold increase since the July 4 holiday. Doctors say the highly contagious Delta variant, combined with Alabama’s low vaccination rate, is to blame.
The numbers have moved some local institutions to action. Jacksonville is offering financial incentives for city employees who get COVID vaccines, and Jacksonville State University is promising gift cards to students who have been immunized. Anniston City Schools will require masks when classes reconvene Aug. 9, and other local school systems have pondered mask rules.
But local officials are, in many ways, the proverbial choir, and preaching to the unconverted is proving considerably more difficult. Alabama has long struggled with a low rate of vaccination. Even with a slight uptick in new vaccinations over the last two weeks, two of every three Calhoun County residents remain completely unvaccinated, while only 28 percent have completed the full round of shots.
Two new COVID deaths in Calhoun County
Last week, doctors at RMC said they hoped to see a decline in COVID cases soon, on the assumption that at least some of the recent spate of infections were due to July 4 gatherings.
That hasn’t happened. Magadia said the number of new patients being admitted to the hospital has increased in recent days, with patients being released at a rate of about one every two days — a pace that’s bound to swell the hospital’s numbers still farther.
Magadia said the hospital plans to reopen its second COVID ward, which in recent weeks was converted back for use by non-COVID patients. As the hospital works to move 16 non-COVID patients out of the ward, several COVID patients are being treated in beds in the emergency room.
One prediction has come true: doctors last week said the increase in new infections would ultimately lead to deaths. Over the weekend, the death toll in Calhoun County went up by two, with a total of 334 people in Calhoun County killed by the virus.
Schools can’t require COVID vaccines
Doctors had hoped a post-July-4 lull would give them at least a small break before the beginning of the school year. Most local school systems begin class in early August, and a state law passed earlier this year prohibits them from requiring vaccinations.
In Calhoun County Schools, the Anniston area’s biggest school system, administrators said last week they were awaiting guidance from the state health department before deciding whether to require masks in schools.
The Alabama Department of Public Health released its policy on COVID and schools Monday, with recommendations that masks be universally required for students, staff and teachers. Quarantine will still be required for people who have come into contact with the virus, except when the person in question is vaccinated and symptom-free.
Attempts to reach Calhoun County Schools superintendent Donald Turner were not immediately successful Monday afternoon.