Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the US. Now it’s starting to rise

Joan Chang, 42, is 33 weeks pregnant with her second child. But it wasn’t until last week that she got her first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Chang, who works in the banking industry, has been working from her home in Gardendale, Alabama, since last year and doesn’t really interact with anyone, she said. Chang says she felt safe.

But she’s since changed her mind, pointing, in part, to the rise of the Delta variant and people largely failing to wear masks in public.

“It got to the point where you turn around and people are getting sick, people I know are getting sick,” Chang said. “And there’s no way I can get sick with this baby coming.”

Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the United States: It is one of just two states — the other being Mississippi — with less than 35% of the population fully vaccinated. But amid climbing Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations, the state is reporting a slight uptick in inoculations, and officials are hoping the trend continues among people like Chang.

On Thursday, the state’s 7-day average of vaccine doses administered per day was about 13,301 doses, according to a CNN analysis of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from a month prior, when the 7-day average of doses administered each day was about 7,250 doses.

Alabama is among a handful of states that “are now vaccinating people at a pace not seen since April,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said at a briefing Thursday.

UAB Hospital, the state’s largest, was administering more than 3,000 shots a day in the spring. A month ago, it had fallen to about 80 a day, Vanessa Davis, supervisor of the hospital’s injection clinic, told CNN. Over the last week, it’s been slightly higher, about 200 a day, she said.

“(People are) getting vaccinated so they can feel normal again,” Davis said when asked what’s changing minds. Parents are worried about sending their kids back to school this fall, and some are returning to work for the first time in a year. Others just want to travel again, or they’re tired of feeling cooped up in the house, Davis said.

But they’re also afraid.

“They told us that before they were pretty healthy and they never got sick, and now they’re seeing people that they know and love getting sick and hospitalized and sometimes dying,” she told CNN. “And it scares them enough. It’s that tipping point where they’re finally more scared of the virus than they are the vaccine.”

That’s true for Chang, who thought about her 2-year-old daughter and her unborn son. She’d been hearing about the Delta variant and how transmissible it is every time she turned on the news, she said. But it was her role as a mother that ultimately led her to make the decision.

“I would not forgive myself if I got so sick that I cannot take care of them,” she said.

Cases and hospitalizations are climbing

Alabama, like much of the United States, is seeing a surge of Covid-19 infections, driven in large part by the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The seven-day average of new cases Wednesday was about 2,622 reported cases per day, according to an analysis of Johns Hopkins data — a 131% increase from the 7-day average of new cases two weeks prior.

Hospitalizations are climbing, data from Health and Human Services shows, with 1,965 hospitalizations reported Thursday, compared to 298 a month ago.

Davis, of UAB Hospital, said it was “frustrating” that the pace of vaccination has been slow, despite the ongoing threat of Covid-19. And she’s worried matters could get worse.

The pace hasn’t improved as much as she’d like, but Davis is hopeful.

“I feel like at this time, we still have plenty of vaccines for the patient demand we have right now,” Davis said. “I really do wish that we would get to the point where we’re running low on vaccines, because that means we’ve vaccinated a whole lot of people.”

In light of the surge, a group of Alabama hospital presidents, CEOs and other health professionals issued a joint statement this week, urging Alabamians to get vaccinated.

“We represent health care providers who have seen far too many of our fellow citizens become ill and die because of this disease, including children,” the group wrote. “We join all of you in wanting this to go away, but for that to happen it’s going to take all of us. We respectfully request that those currently unvaccinated reconsider their decision. The benefits of getting vaccinated FAR outweigh any potential risk.”

Vaccinations are rising across the country: In a tweet Thursday, White House Data Director Dr. Cyrus Shahpar said more than 864,000 doses had been reported administered over the previous day’s total, including about 585,000 people who got their first shot. That’s the highest number of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered — and new vaccinations — reported in a single day in more than a month, according to the White House.

Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins told CNN on Sunday he hoped the surge in cases was changing the minds of the vaccine hesitant, noting the rise in vaccination rates.

“This may be a tipping point for those who have been hesitant to say, ‘OK, it’s time,'” Collins said. “I hope that’s what’s happening. That’s what desperately needs to happen if we’re going to get this Delta variant put back in its place.”

What’s changing their minds

Chang’s husband, Joseph Millwood, works in health care and has long been vaccinated. He knew the threat Covid-19 posed to his wife, and he’s been urging her to get the shot.

Chang admitted she was initially concerned about how it might affect her baby. “But then looking at people dying,” she said, “I had to my weigh my options.”

She got the shot after consulting her Ob-Gyn, who told her it was highly recommended that she get the vaccine. So a day or two later, Chang got tested to be sure she was negative. As soon as she got her negative result, she got the vaccine.

But for other people CNN spoke to in Birmingham, Alabama, it’s simpler. Some, such as Keith Snow, just want to get back to normal.

Speaking outside the vaccination clinic at UAB Hospital and wearing a sticker that read, “I got my Covid-19 vaccine,” Snow told CNN he “really didn’t want to get it at all” because he believed he wouldn’t get sick.

“But me and my wife are getting ready to travel,” he said, “so she told me that we were going to need it in order for us to travel. So here I am.”

As a nurse, 23-year-old Casey Krzeczkowski has had the opportunity to get vaccinated for a while, but she just got her second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine about a month ago. Now that she has it, she’s relieved, Krzeczkowski said, especially with infections surging and talk that her hospital unit could be forced to treat coronavirus patients.

So why wait until now?

“I knew obviously it was going to protect us against Covid, but I just needed some time I felt like to research and decide whether or not it was best for me,” she said. She added that without a mask mandate, she felt “if I was not going to be wearing my mask anymore, I should probably just protect myself.”

Ellyn Norris just got her first shot on Monday. The 20-year-old had Covid-19 but finally got vaccinated in part because she works in education with special-needs children. She didn’t want to endanger her mother, a lung cancer survivor.

“When I had it she was actually going through chemo at the time and so I had to stay all the way upstairs, completely away from her,” Norris said. “And then I thought, you know, if I got it again, I don’t even want to risk that.”

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