Jul. 27—Fewer than a third of Morgan County residents have completed their vaccine series and hospitalizations are beginning to climb, according to local health officials.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 37,761 people have completed the vaccine series in Morgan County, or about 31% of the population.
Decatur Morgan Hospital CEO Kelli Power said the hospital had seven patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases and one patient with a presumptive case as of Monday morning, a number that has been gradually increasing.
"We were down the week before to one, two, even zero (COVID patients) at one point," Powers said. "(We had low numbers) probably a couple of months — for two or three months it was down and we were so thankful when we had none."
Powers said the average age of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Decatur Morgan is 58, but the hospital has had patients as young as 18. She said the majority of the COVID-19 patients did not receive the vaccine.
"I'm here today I guess to beg and plead to people to please get the vaccine," she said at a press conference Monday with Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling and Judy Smith, ADPH Northern District administrator. "We have plenty of vaccines."
Power said many of those currently hesitant to receive their shots are people age 40 and above. She encouraged them to take action now as the school year starts so they may safely attend sporting events and other school programs.
"Going into those events, ... we want those grandparents to get to go but I'd love for them to be vaccinated so they don't end up in the hospital or the morgue," Powers said.
Regardless of the numbers, Bowling said he does not expect a reinstatement of the city's mask mandate, which was briefly in effect last July before a state mask mandate overrode it. The Decatur ordinance was repealed in April, and Gov. Kay Ivey has said she has no plans to reinstate the state order.
"I do not foresee a local mask mandate happening (based on current health guidance)," Bowling said. "I would expect the state to make decisions regarding masks."
Decatur spokesperson Emily Long said the city does not keep data on employee vaccinations.
Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett, who said he has so far opted to not take the vaccine, said about 25% of his deputies and jailers are vaccinated and about 30% of the inmates have received the vaccine. He said he is continuing to encourage his staff and the jail inmates to be vaccinated.
"I haven't received the vaccine yet, but I could change my mind tomorrow," Puckett said last week. "I will continue to monitor the numbers." — Vaccinations slowing
The COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Decatur Morgan Hospital's Parkway Campus is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today through Thursday and 8 a.m. to noon Friday. Beginning Monday, it will be open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, according to Powers. Walk-in appointments are available, but the clinic prefers that people call 256-973-2888 to schedule a time or register through the hospital's website.
Smith said north Alabama is heading "the wrong direction" after an initial push for vaccinations in spring.
"All of the sudden it just kind of bottomed out, people decided it was over," she said.
According to ADPH data, 14,952 Morgan County residents have had COVID-19 since the pandemic began, a number that climbed by 138 in the last week.
Powers said health officials don't know how many of those are infected with the delta variant of the new coronavirus, a strain that health officials say is more contagious and more dangerous for young people than other variants.
Smith said that 1 in 4 COVID patients in the Huntsville Hospital System, which includes Decatur Morgan Hospital, are in intensive care units.
Smith said studies have shown one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine "is not enough," and that those who are only partially vaccinated should complete their series.
"There is a high probability, particularly because of the variants, ... that there will be a recommendation for booster (vaccines)," Smith said.
Smith said even when vaccinations do not prevent the disease, they reduce its severity.
"We do have breakthrough cases, (but) nobody ever said the vaccine was 100% effective," Smith said. "The goal of a vaccine is to protect you. If it doesn't keep you from having disease, it decreases the severity of that disease and it keeps you out of the hospital."
There have been just over 2,000 of these "breakthrough cases" statewide out of the roughly 1.5 million vaccinated Alabamians, according to Smith. She said the "vast majority" of these breakthrough cases did not have serious illness and were not hospitalized.
"My message to you all is we're going to ... stay the course, we're going to run the race and we're going to do everything we can to be here with you," Smith said.
Smith said the return to school in coming weeks will pose challenges because no vaccine has been approved for people under the age of 12.
"Our hope is that soon ... the age groups will be lowered that will be able to get the vaccine," she said.
Powers said health officials expect a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases as schools open.
"We added Friday from five to eight (COVID patients), Huntsville added five over the weekend, Madison added four, so yes ... I think we'll continue with that spike as this delta variant comes in our state," Powers said. — Statewide issue
Morgan County is not alone in seeing more cases.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Alabama hospitals Monday climbed to more than 900 — a number the state has not seen since February — as the state sees a surge in virus cases.
There were 947 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals Monday, up from 204 at the beginning of July, according to numbers from the Alabama Hospital Association. The latest number is about a third of where the state was at the peak of the pandemic when there were 3,000 virus patients in state hospitals in January.
Dr. Scott Harris, who serves as Alabama's state health officer, said he is "extremely concerned" about the rise in cases.
"It's the perfect storm of large numbers of unvaccinated people and the delta variant which is highly infectious and much more transmissible than anything we saw before," Harris said.
— firstname.lastname@example.org or (256) 340-2437. Twitter @timmnail. Staff writer Michael Wetzel and The Associated Press contributed to this article.