HUNTSVILLE — The summer that was supposed to mark America’s independence from COVID-19 is instead drawing to a close with the U.S. more firmly under the tyranny of the virus, with deaths per day back up to where they were in March.
The delta variant is filling hospitals, sickening alarming numbers of children and driving coronavirus deaths in some places to the highest levels of the entire pandemic. School systems that reopened their classrooms are abruptly closing because of outbreaks. Legal disputes, threats and violence have erupted over mask and vaccine requirements.
The U.S. death toll stands at more than 650,000, with one major forecast model projecting it will top 750,000 by Dec. 1.
In Walker County, the lone acute care facility has been bursting at the seams due to a recent peak in new cases. As of Wednesday, 41 patients in the hospital were fighting the virus, which accounts for over 51% of the hospital’s total general population census.
Unlike many hospitals, Huntsville Memorial Hospital boasts both a general population win and a prison win for inmate care. The general population wing holds 80 beds.
Of those hospitalized, 11 patients have filled both the permanent and temporary intensive care units. Hospital officials have also added a mobile medical unit tent to alleviate the emergency department.
“It’s been extremely difficult on our doctors and nurses to keep up with the emergency. The delta variant is taking a toll on the community with between 86-87% of our COVID patients being unvaccinated,” HMH interim CEO Patrick Shannon told members of the Huntsville City Council on Tuesday. “Our migrations have also been extremely difficult because Conroe and Houston hospitals are full.”
Shannon also noted that the hospital currently has a nursing shortage and is having to contract out with nursing agencies to fill vacant nursing positions at a rate of $140 per hour.
“The pandemic has forced nurses to seek other employment at higher rates, and when they start leaving can’t fill their positions at a quick enough rate,” he added.
The hospital is seeking $728,000 in funds that would be split between the city of Huntsville and Walker County. The funds are part of the city and county’s allotment under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Lone Star State is now averaging nearly 10,000 new confirmed cases per day, levels not seen since January. Deaths are close to 200 per day.
Even before the delta variant became dominant, experts say there were indications that larger gatherings and relaxed social distancing measures were fueling new cases.
“We had been cooped up for over a year and everyone wanted to get out,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In the face of that kind of strong change in behavior, even getting almost two-thirds of our adult population vaccinated wasn’t enough.”
The COVID-19 vaccines remain highly effective against hospitalization and death, but many tens of millions of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated. Nearly 57% of Walker County residents 12 and older are not fully protected.