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Alabama’s top health official gets emotional at COVID briefing with state over ICU capacity

Published: Aug. 27, 2021 at 1:24 PM EDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA/Gray News) - Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris choked up Friday at the reality of the state’s ongoing fight against the pandemic, WSFA reported.

“I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to do this,” he said of sustaining efforts against the surging disease.

He said it’s “very frustrating” and pointed to the fact that “so much of what we are seeing is preventable.”

The moment gave pause to members of the media familiar with Harris’ data-driven medical analysis of the situation since the disease was first found in Alabama more than 18 months ago. The remarks came as Harris was providing the latest details on what he called another bad week of growing cases and hospitalizations.

“We are really in a crisis situation,” he said.

Harris called for personal responsibility, for people to socially distance, to wear masks and to get vaccinated. He cautioned that while monoclonal antibody treatments are helping some people who are sick with COVID, “they are not a substitute for vaccination.”

Alabama saw 5,000 new positive cases Thursday while hospitalizations have outstripped ICU capacity and continue an upward trend. Among the nearly 2,900 COVID patients being treated in medical facilities, 85% are unvaccinated and 45 of them are children.

The pandemic is becoming a growing concern for health professionals as it relates to children.

Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, shows over 180,000 child COVID-19 cases were added last week alone across the country.

“This has been a particularly bad week for schools,” Harris added, confirming that the health department and state education department have reactivated a data dashboard that provides information on the pandemic situation as it relates to school systems.

This week, Alabama school districts reported 4,337 COVID-19 cases among students and staff at public schools. However, only 52 of 142 school districts have reported numbers in what is being referred to as a “test week” on data.

“We really want to be able to keep kids in school for face-to-face instruction,” he explained, advocating for universal masking of all kids in all schools.

The Alabama Department of Public Health said 5,571 school-age children tested positive for COVID-19 last week, marking a 700% increase from the same time a year ago. The information was not school data, however, and doesn’t necessarily mean those children were in school, according to Harris.

As of Thursday, Alabama hospitals were treating 2,879 inpatients with COVID-19. There were 1,602 ICU patients and 1,562 staffed ICU beds across the state, a net negative of 40 ICU beds.

The state is grappling with a growing number of COVID-related deaths, which Harris reminded are a lagging indicator that reflect the dire situation weeks prior. Harris said 50 deaths were reported Thursday and double-digit deaths have been reported each day for several weeks.

Noting the reality of the situation, the ADPH has moved two mobile morgue trailers to south Alabama in anticipation of rising deaths. It’s the first time during the pandemic such a move has been necessary, he explained, but stated “there’s no room to put these bodies.”

Federal help is on the way: Harris said a 14-member medical task force is in Baldwin County to assist, and a 20-member team is en route to Dothan. An assessment team from the Department of Health and Human Resources is also planning a trip to Dale Medical Center in Ozark to assess needs there, Harris stated.

Vaccines are available at approximately 1,400 locations across the state, and more people are going to get them. Alabama has seen a rise in vaccination rates, though it remains near the bottom nationally.

Copyright 2021 WSFA via Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.