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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The number of people in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19 dipped Thursday to around 1,000, the lowest since late autumn.

The decline in hospitalizations, daily new cases and the percent of tests coming back positive — three major barometers of the pandemic's severity — is an encouraging sign that the state has emerged from the record-setting winter surge, said Dr. Don Williamson, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association. An unknown, however, is if the state will see another spike from the spread of variants.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined from more than 3,000 on Jan. 11 to 1,003 on Thursday, the lowest level since early November

“These are the best numbers we’ve seen certainly since November. We are headed in the right direction if we don’t do anything to mess it up,” Williamson said.

Williamson attributed the drop in hospitalizations to both a drop in cases and treatment with monoclonal antibodies to lessen the severity of illness.

Other states have also seen a drop in cases. Alabama ranked 22nd among U.S. states in the number of new cases per capita in the past 14 days.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama fell from 2,281 on Feb. 3 to 1,014 on Feb. 17, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Williamson said an unknown is if the state will see another spike from virus variants. At least eight cases of a highly transmissible variant that was first identified in the United Kingdom has been found in the state, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The department said many infectious disease experts have indicated that the current vaccines should be effective against the strain, and that the variant has not been definitively linked to worse outcomes.

Since the pandemic began, more than 480,000 confirmed and probable virus cases have been reported in Alabama, and 9,424 people have died.

Alabama has so far distributed about 685,000 of the 1 million vaccine doses it has received. Early numbers suggest a racial disparity in who is getting the vaccine. Thus far, whites have received about 55% of the doses compared to 12% received by Blacks. The numbers are incomplete, however, because the race of 28% of vaccine recipients was not reported. About 28% of Alabama's population is Black.

Tuskegee University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine have scheduled a town hall for Friday to answer questions about the vaccine and discuss vaccine hesitancy among minority communities. The event will be held via Zoom and is open to the public and the news media.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine said this week that almost 21% of the 59,167 vaccinations they administered were to individuals who self-identified as Black.

“While our early results are better than the national average with Black communities, we are not satisfied and will continue our efforts to increase outreach among underrepresented groups,” Dr. Sarah Nafziger, vice president of clinical operations for UAB Hospital, said in a statement.

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