Outside the Thomas Hospital emergency room on Monday, August 2, 2021, in Fairhope, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).
Rosa Juarez’s biggest concern before Monday was what type of physical reaction, she might get from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Those concerns kept her and her family away from getting vaccinated. But with frequent reports of exploding cases in Mobile and beyond, Juarez said the time was right to do something.
“The cases are going up,” said Juarez, of Mobile, when asked why she decided to get the shots. “That’s why.”
Indeed, the case loads continue to rise in the most infected region of Alabama, which had the nation’s highest COVID-19 positivity rate last month.
Mobile and Baldwin counties continue to be No. 1 and 2 in the number of infections per capita, with Mobile average 450 cases per day or 10.9 per 10,000 people. Baldwin County is averaging 235 cases per day, or 10.2 per 10,000 people. No other county in Alabama is averaging 10 cases per 10,000 residents each day.
Hospitalizations continue to rise, with all of Baldwin County’s hospitals having an ICU capacity well over 100% (the state average is 86%; the national average is at 68%, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data compiled by The New York Times).
In Mobile, there were 277 hospitalizations related to COVID-19 on Saturday and Sunday. That number exceeds the 276 hospitalizations during the prior peak of the pandemic in January.
‘Low deaths’
Dr. Rendi Murphree, head of epidemiology with the Mobile County Health Department, said the numbers in January began to drop after reaching 277. She said with the latest wave of infections, “there is no end in sight. The numbers are continuing to go up.”
Calling the latest surge a “sad state of affairs,” Murphree – during her daily Facebook update on COVID-19 – said the only good news from the past month has been the lower number of deaths because three-quarters of adults ages 65 and up in Mobile County are vaccinated.
She said that 60 percent or so of the cases include people in the 18-49 age range, who are suffering from milder illnesses but how have low vaccination rates. Mobile County’s overall vaccination rate is 31.4%, which is below Alabama’s rate of 34.4% — the worst in the U.S. Baldwin County’s rate is 31.7%.
“We are seeing a rather low number of deaths, and this is perhaps the best news and it’s because of the vaccine,” Murphree said. “Older people and those with underlying conditions, a (majority of them) have been vaccinated. This is what the vaccine is supposed to do – protect people from dying.”
Murphree said the “overwhelming majority” of hospitalizations involve people who are unvaccinated. She said that while people who are vaccinated are getting infections, it’s still a “rare occurrence.”
But, she added, “Even though I say to you it’s rare, if it happens to you and your family, it’s a 100% risk,” Murphree said. “But we are still seeing a majority of cases and hospitalizations occurring in people unvaccinated.”
‘Busy and full’
Thomas Hospital in Fairhope, Ala., as pictured here on Monday, August 2, 2021. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).
At Thomas Hospital in Fairhope, a “significant majority” who are hospitalized are unvaccinated, according to Ormand Thompson, the hospital’s president.
Thomas Hospital, according to statistics, was at 111% ICU capacity on Monday.
“We’re extremely busy and full,” Thompson said. “Those numbers are always changing, but we don’t see those numbers going down anytime soon.”
He added, “From a positivity rate perspective, there is a lot of COVID prevalence in Mobile and Baldwin counties.”
Thompson said that before the pandemic, whenever the ICU capacity was limited, the hospital would move patients to Mobile Infirmary or elsewhere within the region. With the current COVID situation, Thompson said, “I don’t know of any ICU beds available in this region.”
He added, “What we’re doing at this time, and what a lot of hospitals are probably doing, is we are managing the patients within other parts of the hospital. We are doing that with ICU staff and wea re fortunate to have additional space in the ICU where we can set up and care for these patients and maintain appropriate care.”
Infirmary Health, which owns and operates Thomas Hospital, is placing a restriction at all of its properties that limit each inpatient, emergency department patient and outpatient to one visitor at a time age 18 and older.
‘Personal choice’
Thompson is also pushing for people to wear face masks, social distance and get vaccinated. Face masks are required for hospital visitors.
But no mask mandate is coming to Fairhope, according to Mayor Sherry Sullivan. She issued a statement last week letting residents know that she is vaccinated and encouraged others to follow her lead. She said getting vaccinated “should be a personal choice with your physician.”
Sullivan, though, said she does not see a mask mandate forthcoming on city property even though only 20-25 percent of city employees are vaccinated. She said that the city is “certainly recommending” employees wear face masks whenever they are around people who are not vaccinated.
“The biggest thing is for people to consider being vaccinated,” said Sullivan. “I know there are people feeling strongly about not being vaccinated, and I would encourage them to talk to their physicians. It’s so important that if we’re going to continue to operate normally that people be vaccinated.”
In Foley, where South Baldwin Regional Medical Center is at a whopping 161% ICU capacity, Mayor Ralph Hellmich said the city will be implementing a “higher response” on Tuesday morning that allows various departments flexibility in staffing and for instituting safety protocols in their interaction with the public. He said that Foley is not shutting buildings down.
Hellmich said that shortly after the vaccines were made available to the public last spring, the vaccination rate among employees was in the high 20 percent range. He said the city is unsure on the exact rate right now, but he suspects it’s in the high 30 to low 40 percent range.
“We are seeing a significant increase in employee interest in getting vaccine and are urging them to do so,” Hellmich said. “We continue to support (South Baldwin Regional Medical Center) in any way they need or ask for and will continue to monitor the data. If needed in the future, we can modify our protocols further.”
‘Meeting everywhere’
Vaccine clinics continue to be common in Mobile County, and two “Back-to-School” drives are happening this week in which health officials hope to get more youths over age 12 vaccinated.
In Baldwin County, a Back-to-School will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Thomas Fitness Center in Fairhope. A Back-to-School Extravaganza will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 2140 Lott Road in Eight Mile.
Catherine Gould with the Mobile County Health Department helps oversee at least two clinics each day and attended eight of them last week. She said the numbers are rising – when two weeks ago, clinics were slow with only four to seven people coming out for a shot. But a clinic last week in Saraland drew 80 to 90 people, she said.
The Health Department is keeping an update of its clinics on its website.
“We are meeting everywhere,” Gould said. “We will quickly get you in and get you out vaccinated.”
Catherine Gould with the Mobile County Health Department talks about the vaccine clinics going on in the county. She’s overseeing one at the Hope Center in Mobile’s Africatown today. pic.twitter.com/8mkMcTCdwU
The Africatown clinic had drawn eight people in the first half hour.
Gould said that the common concern addressed by the unvaccinated is that they wanted to wait “to see how everyone was doing” who rushed out and got vaccinated in the spring.
“They were wanting to see the news and the feedback,” she said. “They are now very concerned. This is very contagious.”
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