COVID-19 cases in Tuscaloosa County

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to anyone, especially those who live the U.S. With the number of the virus’ victims now approaching 600,000 in America alone, the sole hope for a successful end to the pandemic lies in the widespread distribution of vaccines.

Thankfully, since the start of 2021, vaccines have indeed been rapidly distributed to an ever-increasing percentage of the American public without need for further lockdowns. With the less-elusive threshold of herd immunity ever closer to being reached, the end of the pandemic is finally in sight.

That said, the toll of the pandemic, in terms of both physical and economic health, cannot be overstated. The devastation wrought over the past year is almost incomprehensible. Even if economic recovery occurs fairly rapidly — an increasingly likely prospect, thankfully — the horrifying number of lives lost bears witness to what has so far been the darkest hour of the twenty-first century. The relatives, friends and loved ones of those who have died will have no choice but to bear the burden of grief.

Furthermore, despite its relatively low fatality rate and generally successful treatments, millions of Americans have not been so fortunate as to have a quick one- or two-week recovery from COVID. For the rest of their lives, they will likely be left with debilitating symptoms that will significantly affect their quality of life.

Like other municipalities and counties across the country, Tuscaloosa County has faced its own share of struggles in the course of the pandemic. A geographically large region of West Alabama, Tuscaloosa County spans from the wooded foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the flat Coastal Plain. It’s bisected by the Black Warrior River, a major inland shipping route that also includes many recreational lakes.

The major city in Tuscaloosa County is its namesake, Tuscaloosa; other towns include Tuscaloosa’s smaller sister Northport as well as several rural communities. Home to half the county population — about 100,000 people — Tuscaloosa is also home to the University of Alabama (UA), the Crimson Tide football program, and a thriving culture, arts and restaurant scene.

Tuscaloosa County and its location in Alabama. The red region in the left-hand map indicates the City of Tuscaloosa. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The COVID crisis isn’t the first Tuscaloosa has experienced in recent years. In April 2011, about one-quarter of the city’s inhabited area was destroyed in an EF-4 tornado, one of the many that occurred in an outbreak across the state that day. Fifty-three lives were lost in the destruction, six of them UA students, and many businesses located along the city’s main arteries were decimated.

Generous investment from the Federal and State Governments, as well as capable and energetic leadership from Mayor Walt Maddox, led the city through the worst natural disaster to befall Tuscaloosa up to that point. Today, ten years later, practically all of the area demolished by the tornado’s fury has been rebuilt. In truth, Tuscaloosa has never looked better.

But now an even greater challenge faces the city, one that is silent and not apparent to the naked eye, and the human and economic toll this disaster has brought are many orders of magnitude higher.

I caught up with Maddox the other week in an interview I conducted for Alabama Public Radio where I currently intern. I didn’t see him in person, but judging from the sound of his voice, Maddox seemed tired. Two years ago, he led an unsuccessful bid for Alabama Governor on the Democratic ticket. By the time I interviewed him, he had just won a particularly brutal mayoral re-election. He had been challenged for the first time in fifteen years by two candidates who likely had ties to a local real estate mogul, one who has had an antagonistic relationship with Maddox since the 2011 tornado.

Combined with the continued strain of leading Alabama’s fifth-largest city through the worst pandemic in a century, Maddox was worn out despite his triumph at the polls. Unsurprisingly, he said 2020 was an “especially difficult” year for Tuscaloosa.

“During the course of pandemic, of the 200,000-plus people that live in Tuscaloosa County, over 40,000 applied for unemployment benefits at some point,” he said. “That’s one-fifth of our population. Not only did the economy stop; we lost 30,000 people within the City of Tuscaloosa. That’s bigger than most cities in Alabama.”

The 30,000 people Maddox refers to are out-of-city students who attend UA, all of whom were sent home last March for an extended “spring break” that just kept on going. Despite the significant population losses, Maddox’s strategy was and remains to balance the health of the local economy with the health of the public.

Acknowledging DCH — the local hospital system — has been a “shining star” throughout the pandemic, Maddox shared the good news that its current ICU and ventilator occupancies held by COVID patients were zero. He also praised the recent stimulus packages from Congress, as well as aid proactively granted from City Hall and the State of Alabama, for mitigating the worst economic effects of the pandemic in Tuscaloosa.

While Maddox said he hopes the pandemic will be a “distant memory” in the future despite the personal losses many have experienced, he also knows nothing can erase the difficulty brought by 2020. “We didn’t get a summer boom or a beach boom that maybe coastal cities did,” he said. “We lost football season, which is so key to our economic fabric, so it’s been a tough, tough, tough year.”

Just how tough has COVID-19 been for Tuscaloosa? I’ve compiled three charts below, with information gathered from, an official publication of the United States Government. All of the data is cumulative, and the trendline of a particular chart should be roughly equivalent to that of the others, allowing for easy comparison between them.

The first chart displays the cumulative averages of weekly COVID cases in Tuscaloosa County between late March 2020 and early April 2021. Reviewing the data in this way allows us to accurately see the trends of COVID-19 in Tuscaloosa County while minimizing excess data points. The second chart shows the cumulative averages of weekly deaths, and the third shows the cumulative averages of weekly deaths, per capita — that is, the percentage of the people who died of COVID out of the total population of Tuscaloosa County.

The note at the bottom of each chart mentions a “third wave” of the pandemic; so far, there have been three nationwide “waves” of COVID-19, where cases and deaths rapidly increase over a given stretch of time. (Due to the virus’ typical two-week symptomatic period, deaths from a particular “wave” may continue to increase even as cases decline.)

An initial wave occurred around the time the pandemic first struck, in spring 2020; a second occurred during the summer; and a third, very severe one occurred during the holiday season. So far, the proliferation of vaccines is preventing a fourth wave; if one does occur, it will likely be far less severe than previous ones due to the rising rate of immunity among the general public.

The third chart is important in that it shows the wider effect of COVID deaths on the community. Truth to be told, only about two-tenths of one percent of Tuscaloosa County residents — about 425 people — died of COVID within the specified data collection period. It’s statistics like these that have driven myths and conspiracy theories about the virus, including the idea that “It’s no worse than the flu” or is, in fact, less deadly than the flu!

But according to a July 2020 article from, thinking about the fatality rate of COVID as only a “few hundred” out of a couple hundred thousand people is misleading:

In data provided in the same article, Tuscaloosa County’s total number of flu deaths between 2009 and 2018 was 454. In the better part of a year since that article was published, we can start to understand the full scope of the damage COVID has caused in Tuscaloosa County: there are only about 30 more flu deaths from over a decade than COVID deaths in only a year. COVID is truly a serious disease.

In the spring of 2020, the U.S. was subjected to a nationwide lockdown, in which many “non-essential” businesses were largely shuttered, and people were urged to stay home. While mask-wearing was not yet a common practice at this point, as it hadn’t received official endorsement from the CDC, the socially distant behaviors intended to “flatten the curve” (remember that?) were actually quite effective. They may have been executed poorly and probably weren’t rigorous enough, but the results are still striking — in a positive way. Between March 25 and May 13, there had been only 361 cases of COVID in Tuscaloosa County.

All of this began to change, however, once the nationwide lockdown gradually eased and states and cities were given more freedom to execute the infection mitigation policies they thought to be in the public’s best interest. Between May 27 and July 1, the total of average weekly cases in Tuscaloosa County almost quadrupled, from 531 to 1900. The second, summer wave had begun.

Total cases remained at this same trajectory through the summer. While the situation wasn’t utterly disastrous, especially as DCH was able to successfully manage the caseload, it’s also apparent that far too many lives were lost. A degree of sense finally manifested at the State level when Gov. Kay Ivey signed the “Safer at Home” ordinance, renewed every month until April 2021. The ordinance stipulated that Alabamians were to remain at home if at all possible, maintain six feet of social distance in public, and most importantly, to wear masks in all public buildings. Many communities had mask ordinances of their own; Tuscaloosa charged its own ordinance violators $25 for a first-time offense for not wearing a mask.

In short, mask-wearing was becoming a normative behavior, and it is probably due to this ordinance that cases began to slow. However, a disturbing jump happened in late August in which total average cases rose by 1500 over the course of one week: UA students had finally returned to school. However, the charts indicating deaths don’t share this jump. Most of the new cases had occurred among young people, who tend to fare better fighting the virus.

The UA reopening was probably the single most controversial virus-related event to occur in Tuscaloosa County. Many professors and students were fearful for their health and safety at a campus where nearly everyone was expected to be fully present. The City was caught in a particularly tough spot: not wanting to shutter businesses again while also fearing that open businesses would draw students to superspreader events like moths to light. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this fear was realized.)

Despite the mandatory return testing required for all students upon their return to campus, cases on and around the UA campus still shot up at the beginning of the semester. Thankfully, the outbreak was not particularly intense and quickly died down, probably due to the University’s rigorous quarantine policy. Nevertheless, the strange and difficult degree of social isolation many students have experienced this year on the UA campus prompts us to question whether a return to campus was feasible or wise, Zoom classes and socially-distant dining halls or no.

In this piecewise chart below, taken as “snapshot” of August 13 (the first day of the semester), we can see how Tuscaloosa County fared in its cumulative number of COVID cases compared to Alabama’s nine other most populous counties:

The brighter the red, the more similar two counties are; the darker or greener, the more different. Data is taken from

We can see Tuscaloosa County is essentially in a “box” with Shelby, Baldwin, Lee, Morgan and Calhoun Counties. All of these counties have similar populations to Tuscaloosa County, but only Lee County is home to another large university (UA’s arch-rival Auburn). Tuscaloosa County remained at a similar level of infection as its “sister” counties across the state; this goes to show that Tuscaloosa’s virus-prevention measures were probably superior to those in other counties if it was able to handle a huge student influx so successfully (relatively speaking).

During September and October, the caseload once again slowed; the total number of average cases on September 30 was 8,732, and on October 29, it was 10,413. It was about a month later though, around Thanksgiving that marks the start of the American “holiday season,” that true tragedy of an almost unimaginable scale began to occur.

Prior to this time, deaths had been increasing rapidly over the course of the preceding months. By January, however, deaths had skyrocketed from previous levels. Between December 3 and February 11, the cumulative number of average weekly deaths jumped from 157 to 350. Within a span of two months, this was the same magnitude of increase that occurred between mid-July and late October. An especially pronounced spike can be noticed in both death-related charts between January 7 and 14 — a telltale sign that for many vulnerable people, the latest Christmas and New Year’s parties they had attended had been their last.

In our second piecewise chart dating from the height of the third wave, Tuscaloosa maintains its position in the “box” with its sister counties, displaying a marked similarity in trends to Shelby and Montgomery Counties. (Interestingly, Jefferson and Mobile Counties appear far less similar in their trends than they did five months previously.)

Despite the horrific scale of the tragedy of the past year, all charts begin to show increasingly horizontal trendlines by mid-February 2021, an indication that with the revelry of the holidays over, cases and deaths were increasing at a far slower rate. The other good news is that the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Federal Government — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — were beginning to reveal their positive effects in the population. With the elderly, frontline workers and other vulnerable populations being inoculated, the virus’ progress through the community had been impeded to a significant degree. Over the past several weeks, with more doses of the vaccines available and all individuals age 16 and over declared eligible to receive them, we can expect this positive trend to continue until herd immunity is reached.

Looking at our final piecewise chart, dating eight months after the start of the 2020–21 school year, Tuscaloosa County still maintains its position in the box, being most similar in caseload to Montgomery, Shelby and Baldwin Counties:

Of course, significant obstacles still lie ahead. The presence of the South African and Brazilian virus variants may prove the vaccines less efficacious than originally promised. Continued reluctance to receive vaccines may mean that vaccine supply outstrips demand, and the too-soon loosening of restrictions will prompt unsafe behaviors on part of the public. What is certain is that one day, in the not-too-distant future, COVID will be defeated. It remains to us, however, to ensure its terrible human and social cost isn’t forgotten.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store