OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – East Alabama Health’s CEO and community leaders are issuing a plea to the community to help increase COVID-19 vaccinations. Local hospitals are still caring for the severely ill, and some are dying. With COVID-19 variants, like Delta, there is a concern our community could see another surge of the virus this fall. East Alabama Health is urging families to be aware and not fall into a false sense of security.
“I, of course, have taken the vaccine, and so have my loved ones,” said Brooke Bailey, Director of Infection Prevention and Employee Health at East Alabama Health.
Bailey is grateful vaccines protect her family but remains concerned for other families as Alabama falls far short of herd immunity.
“Alabama ranks last in the United States with vaccine rates at around 30% of people with both doses. We (East Alabama Health) average about seven to nine COVID patients on any given day, and for those admitted, the majority of them have not been vaccinated. We have patients in intensive care on breathing machines and vents. Some are unfortunately dying,” said Bailey.
A plateau in vaccinations, coupled with natural immunity lessening, declining COVID safety protocols, and new variants could mean a fall surge.
“It feels like everybody thinks ‘we’re fine because our Community Vaccine Clinic was successful in surpassing 90,000 vaccine doses, but that’s not a complete picture. I’m worried that we have a false sense of security right now.” Those were the words of Laura Grill, president and CEO of East Alabama Health (the umbrella name for East Alabama Medical Center, EAMC-Lanier, and other services associated with the health system) late last week after a COVID-19 discussion with infectious disease experts at EAMC.
“We have to remember that 90,000 doses of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine means a maximum of 45,000 people were fully vaccinated,” said Grill, “but that’s not the case either. Some people did not return for their second dose. Plus, the doses were spread among several counties, and some of the people vaccinated were from Georgia.”
Grill is concerned complacency has set in.
“It’s a race at this point,” states Grill. “I know people are thinking ‘COVID hospitalizations are down, so why worry?’ Well, the majority of vaccinations—about 65 percent—went to people who are 65 or older, or who have high-risk medical conditions. It’s good that many of them understood the need to be vaccinated, but we still have people being hospitalized who have little-to-no underlying health issues. And most who have been hospitalized over the past three months had not been vaccinated.”
Grill said that not only have COVID hospitalizations continued—albeit on a smaller scale—but so have COVID deaths. “Since Monday, March 1, we have had 19 additional deaths to residents with COVID-19. That’s 19 people who would likely still be with us if they had not contracted COVID-19, and it brings our total number of COVID-19 deaths to 230 since March 2020. We cannot allow that to be the ‘new norm.’ As a community, state and nation, we must do better. We need people to get vaccinated before the virus mutates more and makes it more difficult for the vaccines to be effective.”
Of the 71 new COVID-19 admissions at EAMC and EAMC-Lanier since April 1, 48 of them have been less than age 60, while 29 of them have been less than age 50, and 12 have been less than age 30.
Life for many people has returned to a relative norm. In Lee County, that’s great news for the mayors of the three largest cities. They want the progress against COVID-19 to continue—that would mean healthier and happier communities for all three. And they know the success being seen right now is highly attributable to the vaccine slowing the spread of the virus.
Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller shared the following comments earlier this week. “Friends, now is not the time to be complacent. There are still many people in Opelika and our surrounding area that need to be vaccinated,” stated Mayor Fuller. “I, myself, have taken the vaccine and hope others will see the importance. Do it for your family, your friends, your co-workers. We’ve made a great deal of progress, but we must stay vigilant to keep the virus contained.”
Auburn Mayor Ron Anders echoed those sentiments. “We’ve come a long way, but our fight against COVID-19 isn’t over yet,” said Mayor Anders. “Thank you to each community member who has taken personal responsibility to get vaccinated for the sake of their health and the health of those around them. While many have done their part, our county and state’s vaccination rate still isn’t where we need it to be to combat COVID-19 and its variants. We need all who can to help contain this virus.”
In Smiths Station, Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland also voiced his support. “I would encourage each citizen, both in Smiths Station and Lee County, who can receive their COVID shots to do so,” Mayor Copeland stated. “Out of an abundance of caution and respect to the elderly and medically vulnerable populations, my family and I chose to be vaccinated.”
In January, the COVID-19 positivity rate based on testing through the hospital’s testing site ranged between 14 – 28 percent. EAMC no longer runs a testing site, but current data from the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) shows Lee County with a 7.4 percent positivity rate while neighboring Chambers County is at 14.6 percent. To the southwest, Macon County—which has the highest percent of residents with at least one vaccine dose at 37.81 percent—had only a 1.4 percent positivity rate.
“Because of small sampling, it’s difficult to draw decisive conclusions of vaccination rates to positivity rates,” says Grill, “but it’s safe to say that the more vaccinations that occur, the fewer people who will be hospitalized and possibly die or become a COVID ‘long hauler’ with conditions that linger for weeks, months or longer.”
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had some uncertainty in April due to a temporary pause by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the future of the virus and its variants hold the most uncertainty. “The dominant strain in the U.S. right now is the UK variant—also known as the Alpha variant,” stated Gill. “The India variant—also known as the Delta variant—currently accounts for about 10 percent of new cases in the U.S., but has been detected in 46 states and is expected to become the dominant strain in a matter of weeks. It’s more contagious and causes more severe infections,” said Grill, noting that this information came from the CDC last week.
“It appears the current COVID vaccines will be effective against this strain, but could be less effective as the virus continues to mutate,” Grill explained. “That’s why I said earlier that we’re in a race against COVID-19 because the more it mutates, the less effective the current vaccines will likely become. So, the quicker we can get people vaccinated, the more likely we are to be able to contain the virus.”
You can find more state-wide and local data on this ADPH link list locations statewide.