As the first two coronavirus vaccines are in the final stages of emergency approval for distribution nationwide, Alabama State Health Office Dr. Scott Harris described the state’s vaccination plan today, but warned the public to maintain social distancing, mask and hygiene guidelines because it may be next summer before immunizations are widely available to anyone who wants one.
In a news conference hosted by Sen. Doug Jones this morning, Harris said the recent numbers regarding COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are “mind boggling” and “we have a very difficult time ahead.”
“We’re seeing numbers like we have not seen before,” he said. “In April, when the stay at home order was in place, we were worried when we had 500 inpatients in a single day. As of this week we’ve had more than 1,800 inpatients in the state.”
Harris said the state is currently reporting around 2,500 new cases per day statewide and “hospitalizations at an all time high.” The percent positive rate is 12-13 percent and currently more than 5 percent of all people in Alabama are known to have been infected.
“Others we’re not capturing,” he said. “About 1 of 10 of [infections] ends up in the hospital. It’s unsustainable and we cannot continue to head down this road.”
Citing uncertain logistical and security concerns, Harris could not go into great detail about the state’s initial allotment of vaccines, but said the Pfizer product can only be accepted by a handful of institutions capable of storing it at -80 degrees celsius and administering it 1,000 doses at a time. Harris said based on applications received by the Department of Health and Human Services, only 16 locations in Alabama are capable of administering the Pfizer vaccine, and although most are in population centers, a particular void will exist in Southwest Alabama.
More flexible is the Moderna vaccine, which must be stored at -5 degrees celsius and will be shipped in batches of 100. The good news is an additional four or five vaccines may be on the market by the spring, he said, but ”they will all be different.”
“Not all vaccines will be appropriate for a given person. If you’re in a particular age group or demographic, there may only be one or two appropriate for you. They all have different handling and dosage requirements, some are one shot, some are multiple shots. So there are alot of moving parts and logistical complications we’re dealing with.”
Harris suggested those interested in receiving a vaccination consult with their personal physician about which product is appropriate for them.
According to the Department of Public Health’s four-phase vaccine plan, the first allotment will be “targeted to those at highest risk and highest risk of exposure.” Those include “first responders and healthcare workers who care for those with critical needs, as well as residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
In Phase 2, “more doses will be available to vaccinate critical workers in high risk settings who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure, essential workers, and older adults. Education efforts will target critical populations who were not vaccinated in Phase 1.”
Phase 3 will make doses available for “workers in critical infrastructure that are important to the functioning of society with a moderate risk of exposure” and Phase 4 assumes a sufficient supply is available and “all unvaccinated groups will be targeted. Special attention will be directed to populations or communities with low vaccine coverage.”
“There is simply not enough vaccine right now for everyone, even those highly deserving of it,” Harris said. “But we’re going to do our best to reach everyone as quickly as possible. We’re thrilled to have vaccines, we know it’s going to save lives. Science is always the answer to these problems but we still have a long way to go.”
Meanwhile, Jones said Congress is currently considering a nearly $1 trillion economic relief package and although his term is ending, he expects the new presidential administration and Congress to consider additional legislation next year.
“Clearly the economy is getting into some danger zones, and we need to act sooner rather than later,” he said. “Hopefully with the election more than a month behind us, we can put partisan beliefs aside and accomplish a new bill soon.”
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