As flu cases decline, holidays trigger surge in COVID cases
By Wes Tomlinson
For the Enquirer
The Thanksgiving holidays triggered a surge in COVID-19 cases, and state health officials worry that holiday gatherings this month could lead to even more transmission.
Hospitals are reporting more individuals with influenza than COVID-19, but a state health official said flu cases are trending down. As newer omicron variants emerge, COVID cases could increase.
Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties all have positivity rates — meaning the percentage of those who test positive when they take a test — over 10%, according to Alabama Department of Public Health data from the seven days ending Friday.
“We had got it down to under 5%, but now Morgan County is 12.2%,” Judy Smith, ADPH area administrator, said Friday. Lawrence County is at 14.1% and Limestone is at 10.8%. The data does not include the results of increasingly common at-home tests.
Smith said positivity rates are somewhat less than they were after Thanksgiving last year, “but still about twice what they have been” in recent weeks.
She said holiday shopping and family get-togethers were some of the main factors that contributed to the recent spike.
“When you’re with people that have the potential to spread infectious diseases, it’s just an automatic situation that it’s going to happen,” Smith said. “People need to do what they can to protect themselves.”
In the week ending Friday, the ADPH reported 28 statewide deaths resulting from COVID, Smith said. In Morgan County, 105 residents have dies of COVID this year, bringing the total to 540. In Limestone, 77 of the 309 total COVID deaths have been this year. Thirty-seven Lawrence County residents have died of the disease this year, bringing the total through the pandemic to 175. Statewide, 3,896 people have died of COVID this year, bringing the total number of COVID deaths to 20,652.
Dr. Wes Stubblefield, district medical officer for the Northeastern District of the ADPH, said the surge in COVID cases could accelerate in coming months.
“We’ve been worried about (a surge) for a while,” he said. Part of the concern is that COVID cases have spiked during the holiday season the last two years. “The other thing is we’ve seen a switchover to some of these newer omicron variants.”
In addition to COVID, flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) cases have also increased nationwide. Stubblefield said flu season arrived earlier than it usually does and said while cases are declining, the state is still seeing high numbers.
“In terms of hospitalizations, we’ve got 288 individuals in the hospital with flu, and for COVID we have 244. We’ve been seeing that the last few weeks,” Stubblefield said Friday. “We’re also seeing more of a demand for hospital beds across the state, especially with adults.”
Athens Limestone Hospital reported four patients with COVID on Friday, with three of them unvaccinated, and reported that 32% of those tested for flu over the last week had the virus. As of Thursday, Decatur Morgan Hospital had seven COVID patients, one of them in intensive care.
Stubblefield said it is important for individuals to receive a single booster of the updated bivalent vaccine to fight the omicron variants. Smith, however, says vaccination rates remain low in Alabama.
“We’ve got people back together with a COVID variant and not a lot of people — or not as many people that we desire — have had the additional booster,” Smith said.
Stubblefield said the bivalent boosters are available for individuals ages 5 and and should be administered two months after the primary vaccines. He said the bivalent vaccines not only protect those who receive them, but others who may be more vulnerable.
“Consider the benefits of vaccination in preventing hospitalizations and deaths for those at higher risk: Children under 5 are not yet eligible for the boosters and immunocompromised people, such as those who have had cancer or are age 65 and older, are at greater risk of becoming sick or dying from COVID, even with vaccination,” Stubblefield said.