BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - An Alabama doctor shared the devastating experience of having to treat people hospitalized for severe illness caused by COVID-19 as they begged to be vaccinated "too late."
Many of the patients Dr. Brytney Cobia wrote about in a July 18 post on Facebook are people who reportedly refused to be inoculated due to misinformation they believed about the vaccines.
At the late stage of the dying COVID-19 patients’ care, Cobia, who works at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, said she is forced to explain to them that they’re past the point when a vaccine could save them.
"One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late," wrote Cobia on Facebook.
"A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. They cry. And they tell me they didn't know," Cobia added.
Cobia called out the flurry of misinformation that she believes is the cause of the deaths she sees on a regular basis.
"They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn't get as sick. They thought it was 'just the flu'. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can't. So they thank me and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write their death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives," Cobia wrote.
Alabama is currently suffering a "self-inflicted wound" from COVID-19, with hospitals again filling up as the state trails the nation in vaccinations and pandemic precautions like face masks and social distancing are all but forgotten a local health official told The Associated Press.
Only 166 people were hospitalized statewide a month ago with COVID-19 after thousands were vaccinated and before a new variant took hold. But that low point has been followed by a rapid rise, and more than 550 people were being treated for the virus now, statistics showed.
Hospitals are far from the critical point they reached in January, when some 3,000 people were being treated at one time, but the fast-spreading delta variant threatens to worsen the situation — barring a rapid increase in vaccinations, said Dr. Donald Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association.
Statistics show that only 50 people would currently be hospitalized if everyone who is eligible for a shot had gotten one, Williamson said, and chances are their illnesses wouldn’t be as severe.
Only 38% of the state’s population has gotten at least one vaccine dose and just 31% are fully vaccinated, state statistics showed, yet the daily pace of vaccinations has slowed to roughly the same amount that were being given months ago when doses were scarce. Relatively few people still take precautions in public, and businesses full of maskless people are a common sight.
"Data continue to show that vaccinated individuals remain protected from COVID-19. Widespread vaccination is the best way to sustain continued on-campus operations," said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases inn Alabama has increased by 694, a spike of 573%. There were about 197 new cases per 100,000 people during the period, which ranked 11th nationally, with the largest increases along the coast in Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Some 11,460 people have died of COVID-19 in Alabama, giving the state the 17th highest death rate nationally. Alabama has reported more than 560,000 positive tests, and the percentage of tests coming back positive is on the rise.
Medical experts argue that relaxed restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are also contributing to a surge in cases and hospitalizations.
As COVID-19 cases continue to climb amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, Dr. Jerome Adams — former surgeon general during the Trump administration — says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to rethink its current mask guidance.
Adams, who once advised against mask-wearing, opened up on social media earlier this week, admitting his regret about the early guidance in spring 2020.
"Last year Tony Fauci and I famously, prematurely, & wrongly advised against masks. I felt it was the best call at the time, but now regret it," Adams wrote on social media.
He said new, updated guidance should require more vaccinated Americans to mask up in areas where cases and deaths are rising.
"Instead of vax it OR mask it, the emerging data suggests CDC should be advising to vax it AND mask it in areas with cases and positivity- until we see numbers going back down again. CDC was well intended, but the message was misinterpreted, premature, & wrong. Let’s fix it," Adams wrote.
But some governors have taken a different stance.
Rather than reimposing restrictions like mandatory mask wearing, capacity limits for businesses or shutdowns, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has said the only thing she supports is encouraging people to use their "common sense," show personal responsibility and get shots.
But common sense does not appear to be enough in the fight against the ongoing pandemic, as highly transmissible new variants threaten to overwhelm health care systems in multiple states with low vaccination rates.
Despite the data proving that vaccinations are the best protection from serious illness, misinformation surrounding the vaccines continues to plague the U.S.
In a White House press conference last week, current U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm for Facebook and its users to help stop the growing wave of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
"We need an all-of-society approach to fight misinformation. And that’s why this advisory that I issued today has recommendations for everyone," Murthy said.
Murthy asked technology companies to monitor misinformation more closely.
"We ask people to raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share, to ensure that information is backed by credible, scientific sources," Murthy added. "I think in a moment like this when we see misinformation literally costing us our loved ones, costing us lives, we can be more accountable and responsible for the information that we share," Murthy continued.
On Monday, President Joe Biden said that social media giants are "killing people" by hosting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines on their platforms.
While companies like Facebook defend their practices and say they're helping people around the world access verified information about the shots, the White House says they haven't done enough to stop misinformation that has helped slow the pace of new vaccinations in the U.S. to a trickle. It comes as the U.S. sees a rise in virus cases and deaths among those who haven't gotten a shot, in what officials call an emerging "pandemic of the unvaccinated."
Following his initial comments, Biden insisted he meant "precisely what I said" when he remarked that tech giants are "killing people." But he said the point of his rhetoric was to ramp up pressure on the companies to take action.
"My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally that somehow I’m saying ‘Facebook is killing people,' that they would do something about the misinformation," Biden said.
Biden’s comments come as the White House has struggled to counteract resistance to getting a shot, particularly among younger and more Republican demographics. Fewer than 400,000 Americans are getting their first vaccine dose each day — down from a high of more than 2 million per day in April. More than 90 million eligible people have not received a dose.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press and Stephanie Weaver contributed.