BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (NewsNation Now) — Cases of COVID-19 are rising exponentially in Alabama’s largest metro area due to the new, highly contagious delta variant is spreading among the unvaccinated, the head of the area health department said Thursday.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and state health officials cite the low vaccination rate as a major hurdle in trying to combat the delta variant.
“The few cases of COVID are because of unvaccinated folks,” Ivey said during an appearance in Birmingham Thursday. “Almost 100% of the new hospitalizations are unvaccinated folks. And the deaths certainly are occurring with unvaccinated folks. These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain. We’ve got to get folks to take the shot.”
Dr. Mark Wilson, the health officer for Jefferson County, said studies have shown that the delta variant can spread between people in less than a minute, so any indoor area where people gather might need a face mask requirement or at least a strong recommendation that people wear them.
The seven-day rolling average for new cases of COVID-19 has risen eightfold from 13 to 107 a day, he said, and additional new cases and more deaths linked to the pandemic are inevitable, she said.
“The tragic thing is that almost all of these deaths will have been prevented if only those people had been vaccinated,” Wilson said.
In the last two weeks, the state has seen over 9,900 cases of COVID-19. In Jefferson County alone, over 1,000 new cases have been reported.
The problem isn’t isolated to Jefferson County: Only eight of Alabama’s 67 counties aren’t considered at high risk for the illness caused by the coronavirus, and roughly 50 more patients a day are being admitted to state hospitals with COVID-19, which already has killed more than 11,460 people in Alabama.
With only 31% of the population fully vaccinated and nearly all the new, most serious cases among people who aren’t inoculated, Wilson said the state’s vaccination rate is “way, way below” what is needed to control the pandemic.
The governor said she doesn’t like another mask mandate, but she also doesn’t know how to convince more people to get their COVID-19 shots.
“I don’t know, you tell me. Folks are supposed to have common sense. But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the vaccinated folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down,” she said. “I’ve done all I know how to do. I can encourage you to do something but I can’t make you take care of yourself.
Cases have surged since the July 4 holiday, which officials feared would lead to new outbreaks, Dr. Scott Harris, the head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in a video update released by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.
Gov. Ivey speaks on COVID-19 cases rising in Alabama
“Right now we are seeing some pretty difficult times here in Alabama,” Harris said.
Some of the infections are occurring after the type of large gatherings that generally didn’t occur until the state lifted health restrictions. Dr. David Thrasher, who practices in Montgomery, said a doctor friend told him about a church in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville that recently held a large celebration for its 200th anniversary which was followed by a massive disease outbreak.
“Seventy people in that congregation have tested positive,” he said. Thrasher said a friend of his died recently and two people who attended the funeral became infected even though they were vaccinated.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 772, a spike of 280%, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.
There were about 226 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks ninth in the country.
Ivey encouraged Alabamians to get vaccinated, calling it “the greatest weapon we have to fight COVID.” Although she said she has no plans to implement a mask mandate again in the state.
“I want folks to get vaccinated, that’s the cure. That prevents everything. Why would we want to mess around with this temporary stuff? We don’t need to encourage people to go halfway in curing this disease. Let’s get it done. We know what it takes to get it done, that’s to get a shot in the arm,” she said.
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The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate WIAT contributed to this report.