By Anna Jones
It is like jumping from an airplane without a parachute.
That is what one expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham says about not choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As the Delta variant continues to rip through the United States, Alabama is now home to the highest COVID-positivity rate in the nation. The state’s low vaccination rates, combined with the Delta variant’s high viral load and transmissibility rates, make for a deadly combination that experts say can only be stopped by social distancing, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.
“Something we need to remember as we head into this surge is that we have a way to prevent it,” said Sarah Nafziger, M.D., vice president of UAB Hospital Clinical Support Services. “We have the end of the pandemic in our hands. We have the tools to turn this virus from something that is a killer into a cold. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of people who are choosing not to get vaccinated.”
Hospitals across Alabama have been experiencing an increase in coronavirus cases over the last few weeks with 97 percent of Alabama’s hospitalized COVID patients being unvaccinated. UAB Hospital is currently caring for 80 patients with active COVID infection and 17 COVID- convalesced patients and 60 percent of COVID patients in the critical care unit on ventilators. This is the highest number of coronavirus patients UAB has treated since the winter surge in February 2021.
The highly contagious Delta variant has led UAB and other businesses to reinstate mask mandates. With the Delta variant, masking is more important now than it has been in the past.
“The bottom line is we are back to square one with this pandemic,” Nafziger said. “The Delta variant is more transmissible, and Alabama’s vaccination rates are very low. When you put these two things together, it’s like pouring fuel onto a fire, and that is why we are experiencing widespread transmission again. If we had 80 percent of people vaccinated, it would be a different situation; but the reality is that the key to getting out of this pandemic is to start social distancing again, wear your mask and get vaccinated.”
Studies show that the vaccines offer protection against most SARS-CoV-2 variants currently circulating in the United States; but experts warn that, if the low vaccination rates continue, a new variant may develop that can get around the vaccine-induced immune response.
Although doctors are seeing some breakthrough cases, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 99.99 percent of fully vaccinated people do not have a breakthrough case that results in hospitalization or death. Due to the fluidity of this situation, those who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, whether they are vaccinated or not, should get tested to prevent the risk of passing the virus on to other people. Based on the test results, everyone should follow the CDC’s quarantine and isolation guidelines.
“If you look at the people who are in the hospital with COVID-19, almost every single one of them did not get their vaccine,” Nafziger said. “People who get their vaccine are not ending up in the hospital overall. Unfortunately, a key unknown right now is how the low vaccination rates and these new case numbers are going to translate into hospitalizations. The last two weeks have been very alarming and have many health care providers concerned that we are heading to a place that is not good.”
As the surge continues, UAB Hospital is seeing an increase in critically ill patients, leading to overcrowded emergency departments.
“When the pandemic first started, all we could do was hope and pray for some miracle to get us out of this mess,” Nafziger said. “The miracle has come, and it has come in the form of the vaccine. These vaccines have been studied more than any other vaccine in the history of man. They are very safe, and there is no data that suggests otherwise. We have the vaccine. We have the end to this pandemic in our hands, so let’s get vaccinated and put this pandemic behind us once and for all.”
For those who are still unsure of the vaccine, Nafziger suggests turning to reliable sources for more information, including primary care physicians, the CDC and health care leaders in the state.
“Social media makes it very easy for everyone to represent themselves as experts, so please be very careful with who you are turning to for your information,” Nafziger said. “Look at the information they are sharing and ask yourself why you should trust this source. Your local health care providers are always a good source to turn to, because they have your best interests at heart and will always be there to take care of you whether you are vaccinated or not.”
For more information about COVID-19 and vaccinations, visit uabmedicinevaccine.org.