Greater Vaccine Acceptance Urged to Combat Unpredictable COVID-19 in 2022

Amazing advances were made to prevent and treat COVID-19 in 2021. Without the many dedicated workers at hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, urgent cares, county and state health departments, emergency medical services, pharmacies, and other settings who battle the virus every day, this progress would not have been possible. I want to express my gratitude and appreciation for their exceptional, lifesaving service as we enter the third year of the pandemic.

As the new year begins, however, Alabama is seeing its highest daily case numbers in the 22 months of the pandemic. All 67 Alabama counties are in the high category for overall level of community transmission, and percent positivity in tests is the highest ever.

The losses to date from COVID-19 are almost unimaginable. Alabama has now recorded more than 16,502 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with the number of deaths from the virus in 2021 (9,315) exceeding deaths in 2020 (7,187). Each of these deaths represents someone's family member, friend, co-worker, or fellow citizen and we extend our deepest sympathy.

The incredibly contagious Omicron variant is now predominant, and even though its symptoms appear to be less severe and patients are less likely to need hospitalization, too many Alabamians are becoming ill and dying. Vaccine skeptics opine that COVID-19 is no worse than influenza, but it is estimated that the mortality rate from the Omicron variant is at least 10 times higher than the flu.

Disturbing key findings from National Vital Statistics System data include the following:

  • Life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2020 was 77.0 years, a decrease of 1.8 years from 2019.
  • The age-adjusted death rate increased by 16.8% from 715.2 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 835.4 in 2020.
  • Age-specific death rates increased from 2019 to 2020 for each age group 15 years and over.
  • Nine of the 10 leading causes of death in 2020 remained the same as in 2019, although five causes switched rank; heart disease and cancer remained the top two leading causes, and COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in 2020.

Prevention of COVID-19 by vaccination remains key. The single most important action people can take to confer needed protection from serious illness and death from COVID-19 is to become fully vaccinated and boosted when it is appropriate. Regrettably, Alabama ranks around 45th in the U.S. in the number of people who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination, 2.7 million, and slightly lower in the number who are fully vaccinated, about 2.2 million.

Much remains to be determined, but safe vaccines and new therapeutics promise to significantly decrease illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19. For individuals with mild-to-moderate illness, new antivirals in tablet form can be administered at home, thus alleviating the great demands on hospitals. At this time, however, the supply of antivirals allocated to Alabama is very limited.

The course of the virus has proven to be highly unpredictable as well as deadly and more variants are expected to be identified, but I am hopeful that with greater acceptance of vaccine and innovation, COVID-19 can be brought under control in 2022.

Scott Harris, M.D., M.P.H.
State Health Officer