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As Alabama vaccinations sag, UAB Hospital braces for Covid surge

Alabama's Republican governor is blaming unvaccinated people for the exploding number of delta variant infections.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With sagging vaccination rates, Alabama is seeing its highest number of Covid-19 hospitalizations since February as its Republican governor blames unvaccinated people for the exploding number of delta variant infections.

Just over the weekend, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital saw a sharp increase in Covid patients: from 35 on Friday to 54 on Monday. It’s still far fewer than the more than 200 it saw at one point in January — but doctors and nurses say the patients now are much younger.

On Monday, intensive care unit nurse Barbara Thornton learned that one of the hospital’s Covid patients — a pregnant woman in her 20s — had died.

"It is frustrating because it's really sad," Thornton said. "To see people so sick, and to see their families suffer because they can't be with them in the hospital."

According to UAB Hospital, 31 recent Covid lab samples all came back positive for the delta variant.

Hospitalizations in Alabama have soared more than 300 percent since July 1. Just 34 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated — the lowest rate in the country.

"It's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks," Gov. Kay Ivey said last week. "It's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down."

"I think there are a number of reasons that people are hesitant to get vaccinated here," said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, professor of medicine and director of infectious diseases at UAB Hospital. "There's a lot of mistrust of government mandates."

Medevac pilot Ricky Hamm leaves University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where he stayed for 187 days being treated for Covid-19.Steve Wood / University of Alabama Hospital

Ricky Hamm was a medevac helicopter pilot who tested positive for Covid three days after getting a vaccination, before it fully took effect. He’d spend 187 at UAB Hospital — 147 of them on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It’s a device that removes a patient’s blood, filters out carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. Essentially, it acts as a patient’s heart and lungs and is used on seriously ill Covid patients.

Hamm, a veteran who first flew medevac in the Army, was released from UAB earlier this month.

“I’m more thankful than I can explain,” he said in an interview. “Someone was looking out after me, I guess.”

He’s still recovering with an oxygen tank at his home in rural Alabama — and he has a message for anyone who is still skeptical of getting a Covid vaccine shot.

“Nobody wants to go through this, and a lot of people who went through this didn’t come out,” he said. “Is it worth not taking a shot? That, to me, is stupid!”