(BIRMINGHAM, Ala.) -- After weeks of rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, there are signs that Alabama's latest coronavirus surge may be starting to abate. However, the reprieve comes at a high cost -- with the state now experiencing a near record-breaking surge in virus-related deaths.
"We are seeing a decrease in the number of patients that are in the hospital, but unfortunately, it's not because all of them are getting better and going home to their families... These patients are dying," Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, chief of hospital medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, told ABC News.
Statewide, there are now more than 2,100 patients hospitalized with coronavirus, and intensive care unit capacity also remains tight, with 97% of ICU beds currently in use, according to federal data.
Although numbers are now coming down, said Kennedy, this surge is different from the last one, because "patients are so sick," and are thus requiring longer stays.
"A lot of our patients that are in the acute-care settings are getting worse and requiring the ICU. I think overall, the need for ICU beds remains high across the state," Kennedy added.
Because more than 74% of the Alabama's elderly population chose to be vaccinated, they have fared better throughout this latest surge, Kennedy said. However, this latest wave has also been a particularly disconcerting experience, she added, because the patient population is much younger, and primarily consisting of unvaccinated people.
"These patients are as sick if not sicker than elderly patients, they're staying in the hospital longer and they're dying at an alarming rate," Kennedy said. "It's unlike anything that I've seen."
The new surge comes as recent data revealed that for the first time in Alabama's history, there were more deaths than births in 2020.
"Here in Alabama, we continue to see deaths at a really high rate. ... 2020 is going to be the first year that we know of in the history of our state where we actually had more deaths than births -- our state literally shrunk in 2020," Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris reported during a press conference on Friday.
In 2020, data showed that 64,714 Alabama residents died and only 57,641 were born. Even in World War II or the 1918 flu pandemic, there was never a time that deaths exceeded births, Harris added.
"It's certainly possible that could happen this year as well if we continue at the same rate that we're seeing now," Harris noted.
Even as the situation shows signs of improvement, the country is entering flu season, and public health measures have been considerably relaxed in Alabama.
"At this point, we're just kind of bracing ourselves, as we see the resumption of college football and people out in large numbers, and wondering how that is going to fare, as far as inpatient volumes both for COVID and for flu," Kennedy said.
Additionally, Alabama has one of the country's lowest vaccination rates, with just 41.6% of the state's total population fully vaccinated, putting much of the state's population still at-risk for severe infection.
"Unless we see a dramatic uptick in the number of people that get vaccinated, our concern is that we will do this again in just a few months. And every time we do it, it seems to get worse," Kennedy said.
The ongoing crisis has left front-line workers frustrated, Kennedy said, admitting that she still does not see an end in sight.
"Watching people out in the community behave as though COVID is not an issue or that it's over, is really -- it's a really sharp contrast to what we're seeing in the hospital and sometimes that's very difficult to process," Kennedy said. "We don't have to be in these situations. We are choosing illness and death in a way that is just very unnatural."
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