The staff at Russell Medical quietly celebrated as another recovered COVID-19 patient went home.

Not only did Russell Medical send home its 15th patient successfully extubated after COVID-19 treatment, but it has no COVID-19 patients currently on a ventilator.

Sherri Thomas spent eight days on the ventilator in the intensive care unit at Russell Medical and went home Friday afternoon.

While Russell Medical has no COVID-19 patients on the ventilator, its clinics are seeing high numbers of patients seeking COVID-19 tests. Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4, 401 patients tested positive at the drive-thru testing center at The Mill Two Eighty, according to Russell Medical director of marketing Susan Foy. Just as the number of people testing positive is the rate at which those testing are receiving a positive test result — more than 30 percent at Russell Medical and more than 40 percent across Alabama.

Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris said the omicron variant is what is being seen in most positive cases across Alabama and information from the United Kingdom suggests the symptoms are less severe than previous variants.

“We have seen some data from the UK and other places that you’ve probably read about that suggest that omicron causes somewhat less serious illness overall than the delta variant,” Harris said. “We think that’s probably true. That certainly would be good news if that turns out to be the case.”

Harris said the same studies showed a death rate with the omicron variant is about one-half that of the delta variant. But just because omicron has a lower death rate doesn’t mean everything is fine.

“Here in Alabama, our experience with delta was that about two percent of all people died who were infected with that,” Harris said. “If omicron is shown to be that, for example, maybe only one percent of people die with omicron, that’s still 10 times the rate of what we see people with influenza dying from. It’s still ten-fold more dangerous than influenza. And even if it’s half as deadly if you have a variant that infects twice as many people you can expect to see your numbers turn out to be the same. You still have the same issues with it, with a surge affecting your hospitals and numbers of people getting sick or dying. We certainly hope it is less serious overall and maybe that will prove to be true at some point.”

Treatments in short supply

The best treatments to prevent serious illness are not available in sufficient quantities at this point.

Harris said only one type of monoclonal antibody treatment appears to be effective against omicron – sotrovimab. Harris said Alabama is only expected to receive 420 doses this week, which falls short of what is needed to treat current positive cases.

“There’s just not enough to go around, which is a real difficult problem,” Harris said.

Harris said two new oral medications to treat those with COVID-19 will also be in short supply for a while.

But the shortage should be temporary.

“Production of all of those is ramping up,” Harris said. “It’s only going to increase. We expect in a few weeks we’ll have a lot more of it just like we saw with the supply of vaccines or like we saw with the supply of test kits or whatever. It just takes a while to ramp up the full production.”

COVID-19 vaccine

There are plenty of places in the area offering the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. Almost all pharmacies are taking appointments to administer the vaccine and the booster, as is Russell Medical.

Some say the vaccines are the cause of variants but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that is a myth.

“COVID-19 vaccines do not create or cause variants of the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC states on its website. “Instead, COVID-19 vaccines can help prevent new variants from emerging.

“New variants of a virus happen because the virus that causes COVID-19 constantly changes through a natural ongoing process of mutation... As the virus spreads, it has more opportunities to change. High vaccination coverage in a population reduces the spread of the virus and helps prevent new variants from emerging. CDC recommends that everyone five years of age and older get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.

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