MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Earlier this week, drug company Pfizer announced positive results of a COVD-19 vaccine trial, but the outlook for winter in Alabama is drawing concern as cases and hospitalizations rise across the state and country.
“Cases are going up,” said Montgomery-area pulmonologist Dr. David Thrasher. “When cases go up, hospitalizations will go up, when hospitalizations go up, death rates will go up.”
Within the past week, hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama rose by 243. As of Thursday, a total of 1,233 people were being hospitalized for the virus in the state. A number not seen since mid-August.
Coronavirus cases in Alabama reached its peak in the summer when the number of hospitalized patients topped 1,600. Those numbers dropped in August and September but have now risen to 1,200 with no signs of slowing.
Pfizer said their COVID-19 vaccine is showing 90% effectiveness and could be in Alabama by mid-December.
Public health experts say the first shots could be administered before the end of the year or early next year. But, even if the vaccine gains approval within the next month, Pfizer reports that they can only produce about 10 to 15 million doses by the end of the year - a small percentage of the worldwide need.
The first people to get the vaccine will be health care workers and patients who are most at risk.
“We’ll eventually have enough vaccine to vaccinate the entire United States by 2021, probably by the summer we will have enough,” Thrasher said. “But, we’re facing a very, very, difficult, dangerous winter. It’s imperative that we continue to do the things we’re doing, social distancing and wearing masks. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is going forward for everybody to wear masks.”
As of Thursday, 81 patients are being treated for COVID-19 inside of Baptist Health Systems and 31 patients are being treated inside of Jackson Hospital.
Thrasher said the cities hospitals are not currently overrun, but they could be this winter.
“Winter is here, that’s when we normally get overwhelmed in the hospitals with flu and other respiratory diseases,” Thrasher said. “We are very lucky COVID hit March 11th. March through July is normally the slowest time of the year for us as pulmonary doctors because respiratory diseases are less and the hospitals are normally slow. We don’t have that excess capacity that we did back in the summer.”
Thrasher said right now Montgomery-area hospitals have enough personal protective equipment.
“I hope and pray we have enough for the winter,” Thrasher said. “The winter is going to be very tough.”
Some good news - Thrasher said death rates among hospitalized patients have declined since the early days of the pandemic with improvements in treatment.
“Some of the earlier studies with remdesivir and some of the other studies weren’t that good because we didn’t treat these people until, in my opinion, they were on death’s door step,” Thrasher said. “Now, we’re treating them a lot earlier and a lot more aggressive and we’re having better success.”
Thrasher said he along with many other health experts across the state are encouraging local and state officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, to continue the state’s mandatory mask ordinance until this fight is over. The mask ordinance is set to expire Dec. 11.
Public health experts are concerned about the potential for an explosive spread after Thanksgiving. Thrasher said people should consider hosting smaller celebrations this year and consider moving outdoors. He also said to wear a mask, especially when inside with family.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts there will be 260,000 to 282,000 coronavirus deaths by Dec. 5, according to a forecast published Thursday.
Johns Hopkins University data reports that there are currently at least 10.5 million cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 242,000 people have died.