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Despite COVID vaccine news, UAB doctor urges vigilance, warns against Thanksgiving gatherings

News of a potential COVID-19 vaccine is a hopeful sign, the University of Alabama Birmingham’s top infectious disease specialist said Wednesday, but it shouldn’t distract people from the increasing spread of the virus. 

“It’s a huge light at the end of a very long tunnel,” Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s infectious disease division, said in a teleconference with reporters.

Marrazzo said there were unsettling trends in the pandemic in recent days that haven’t been much discussed by the public, largely because of the election and other news events.

Nationwide, she said, the daily number of new infections is at a record level, and nearly 62,000 people are hospitalized with the disease, rivaling numbers last seen in April.

Calhoun County is seeing growth in its most grim numbers. As of Wednesday, there were 68 confirmed deaths from the virus in the county, with 9 additional deaths suspected as coronavirus-related, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Nearly a dozen of those deaths were confirmed in the past week, and deaths from the virus seem to have become a near-daily occurrence, said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County EMA.

Marrazzo said it is time for people to re-examine their Thanksgiving plans with an eye toward preventing spread of the disease.

“The safest thing, to be perfectly honest, is not to gather,” she said. She said that even getting tested before going to a gathering isn’t entirely foolproof, because a person can be infected and still not show as positive on some tests until two days later.

The drug company Pfizer announced Monday that a vaccine has shown effectiveness in the company’s trials. Marrazzo said the public should “keep their hats on,” noting that any vaccine still must undergo safety trials and is likely a long way from wide distribution.

“Just think of it as a ray of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. In the meantime, “we’ve got to slog through.”

Marrazzo said Alabama’s numbers continue to climb despite “sub-optimal testing.” She said the problem isn’t necessarily that there isn’t enough COVID testing in the state; it may be that labs aren’t reporting their numbers as they should.

In Calhoun County in recent days, about 20 percent of COVID-19 tests have come back positive, Barton said. That’s an uncommonly high percentage, typically indicating that many more cases would emerge with more testing.

Barton said there’s another likely answer: Some local medical providers are reporting only their positive results. The state requires time-consuming paperwork to report both positive and negative results, he said, and medical workers already have their hands full with COVID patients on top of their regular business.

“If they would come up with systems that are more user-friendly, we’d see better reporting,” he said.

As of Monday, 36 people were hospitalized with the virus, according to Regional Medical Center in Anniston. Hospitalizations surged last month and have stayed in the mid-30s since then.

“It’s still unfortunately there, and it’s prevalent,” Barton said of the virus.

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

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