As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alabama and across the nation, officials are expressing optimism about the pending availability of an effective vaccine, but cautioning against dropping one’s guard as the holiday season approaches.
At a news conference Monday, Dr. Michael Chang, chief medical officer for USA Health, said although vaccines may be widely available by early next year, COVID cases are reaching their highest level since the pandemic began and people are urged “to take extra precautions” as they consider gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chang didn’t expressly advise against traditional gatherings, but stressed the continued importance of social distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing, while warning the potential for a “much-higher-risk situation” is looming.
“From a health care systems perspective, we want to make sure that we have the capacity to cater to the people that need the care within all the hospitals in the region and around the country,” Chang said. “Because people tend to congregate indoors more, the more you’re indoors and the more you’re in tight spaces, the higher the risk of transmission. There’s no way around that, that’s a biological fact.”
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), 220,848 cases have been confirmed statewide since March 13, resulting in 3,301 deaths. Hospitalizations peaked in early August, but the seven-day average of confirmed cases reached its highest level this week and the percentage of positive tests has been increasing since hitting a low of 7.1 percent the week of Oct. 3.
Meanwhile, ADPH reported Monday the state may be able to provide inoculations against the coronavirus as early as mid-December. According to a news release, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris recently spoke with U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of the federal government’s vaccine task force, who suggested “large amounts of vaccine from different companies have already been produced and stored while clinical trials are ongoing.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to take about two weeks to review vaccines, and if they are confirmed as safe and effective, “vaccine kits will be shipped to several locations statewide and pre-positioned to provide immunizations in Alabama.” ADPH is expected to follow a three-phased COVID-19 vaccine plan, and once they are available, the first to be inoculated will be health care workers and first responders.
“All Americans can receive their initial vaccine treatment without any charge, including people with no health insurance,” the department reported. “Gen. Perna and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris emphasized that the goal is for all people to have access to the free vaccine regardless of their financial status or location. Distribution of the vaccine will be made equitably to those most at risk, the chronically ill and seniors in all 67 Alabama counties.”
Chang said his primary concern is the increase in cases may threaten to overwhelm the health care system. Both University Hospital and USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital have been “functionally full” since the pandemic began, he reported, and the intensive care units turn over beds as soon as they become available.
“We’re always worried about hospital capacity, and the experience over the last six months has been that when there are events that encourage gathering of people — whether it’s Mardi Gras, whether it’s July 4, whether it’s Halloween — we seem to see a bump in cases afterward,” he said. “Our concern is that with Thanksgiving, with the travel that’s associated with Thanksgiving and the bringing together of circles of people that may not always spend time together on a daily basis, there may be an increase afterward.”
Coincidentally, the Mobile County Health Department is sponsoring a special COVID-19 testing event called “Know B4U Go,” on Saturday, Nov. 21, at several family health locations throughout Mobile County. According to the department, the idea behind the event is for people to get tested before the Thanksgiving holiday to protect gatherings and travelers.
At the event, the department will provide free rapid testing and results while you wait. Walk-ins will also be allowed and individuals do not need to be displaying symptoms to be tested. More information is available at mchd.org.
The current statewide health order from Gov. Kay Ivey upholds the mandatory mask requirement and also prohibits non-work-related gatherings that cannot maintain a six-foot distance between people of different households.
Chang also encouraged anyone planning to gather in large groups to self-isolate beforehand — beginning as soon as this week — to limit the spread of the virus.
“The pandemic is worse — not getting better — and that’s absolutely a concern,” he said. “It’s a concern for all the health care facilities, not just in the region or the city but in the country as well because, from our perspective, a critical inflection point occurs when the needs for the population exceed the ability of the health care system to meet those needs. Not just for the patients who are COVID-19 positive, but for all those other patients that otherwise would need health as well.”
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