MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris gave an update on the COVID-19 pandemic as hospitals deal with a rise in patients and schools welcome back students for the academic year.

“We need Alabamians to understand that we are in a very difficult situation right now,” Dr. Harris said. “We need people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible. We have seen an uptick in vaccinations recently…and that’s encouraging but we still have a long way to go to reach all the people that need to be vaccinated in our state.”

Dr. Harris began the press conference with the latest numbers regarding the pandemic, including the fact that only 5% of all ICU beds in the state are available and around 2,400 Alabamians are hospitalized with the virus. The state has also seen five straight days of double-digit deaths which Dr. Harris says is an indicator of how bad things could get.

“What I need you to remember is that deaths are a lagging indicator. Deaths happen last. We see case numbers go up, we see hospitalizations go up and then we see deaths go up. This is a snapshot of what was happening three or four weeks ago. The numbers you’re seeing today in deaths are telling us what was happening in Alabama around the Fourth of July. There’s no way these numbers are not going to continue to increase because we continue to see these case numbers go up,” he said. 

The state health officer once again encouraged everyone to get vaccinated calling it “one of the most highly effective vaccines we know about.”

“I think the message we want people to take away is that most of these hospitalizations, 90% of them, are preventable. Please go get vaccinated as soon as you can so that you don’t end up like one of these unfortunate folks,” Dr. Harris said.

As schools open back up, Dr. Harris discussed the dangers facing children and the new strain of COVID-19. As of Thursday, Birmingham City Schools have reported 31 students and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Clearly kids are being infected in higher numbers, I don’t think we’re surprised by that, because we have a much more infectious variant circulating,” he said.

Some states have implemented mask mandates again and the city of Birmingham now requires masks in all city-owned buildings. Dr. Harris did not say if the state was headed back to guidelines during the previous heights of the pandemic.

“We wish mandates weren’t necessary, we wish people would just get vaccinated,” Dr. Harris said. 

When asked about whether a Disaster Declaration will be made in the state, Dr. Harris said it will have to come from the top.

“Ultimately that’s a decision the governor will have to make,” he said. “If a Disaster Declaration is coming, there certainly needs to be really clear benefits from doing that and reasons to do that. We’re working through ourselves the ways in which that could be beneficial.” 

The state has reported 1.6 million people have been fully vaccinated with only 0.001% of them dying from the virus, according to Dr. Harris.

You can watch the full press conference in the video player above.