Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Make a Difference --- Get Vaccinated for COVID-19 If You Are Eligible

Alabama is in crisis as we are experiencing rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and our healthcare systems are under stress with the highly transmissible Delta variant. I challenge every Alabamian to do their part in slowing the surge. This means each individual needs to take personal responsibility by caring for themselves and looking out for others in their community. Our most effective strategy is to strongly encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all eligible people.

Many COVID-19 cases we see are preventable with the safe, highly effective, and free vaccines we have available. Vaccines work with the immune system to fight the virus if exposed, and they can help prevent long-term side effects of the disease. Scientific facts about vaccines have been presented often, but too many people rely on misinformation or outlandish disinformation instead.

We are pleased that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, now called Comirnaty®, for people age 16 and older. This vaccine was previously authorized for children ages 12 to 18, and other vaccine product approvals are expected soon. There is more safety data available on this vaccine than on any vaccine, medication, or medical device ever approved by the FDA in history, as the vaccine was given to 300 million people before approval.

COVID-19 cases have grown to more than 5,500 cases in the 5- to 17-year-old age group, yet the number of vaccinated adolescents in Alabama is only around 29 percent. The 2021-2022 school year has barely begun, but school districts in Alabama have already sent home thousands of students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come into close contact with a person with the virus. Now that in-person classes are underway, there has been a 700 percent rise in childhood infections compared with this same week in 2020. Football games have been forfeited, schools have closed, and virtual learning has returned to many schools as a result.

Children need to have a physical presence in the classroom because we know how many harmful effects there can be in keeping them away—mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. Getting children back in classrooms safely means that close contacts of people with COVID-19 should not be in the classroom setting and other prevention measures need to be taken.

What are parents to do to protect their children, Alabama’s most valuable resource? Discuss vaccination with your child’s medical provider to answer any questions you have. Fully vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus that causes COVID-19, so getting all family members 12 and older vaccinated will help protect children, their younger siblings, and other people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. On a positive note, more than half of schools in Alabama now have mask mandates. The science is clear that universal mask wearing in indoor public spaces is important for everyone to significantly reduce virus transmission.

In addition to wearing masks, parents should teach their children ways to prevent exposure by practicing good hygiene by covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching their face, washing hands often, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. Parents should set a good example for their children by consistently following preventive measures themselves.

Protecting Alabamians is the goal of quarantining and isolating persons who have contagious diseases or may have been exposed to them. If you or your child has symptoms of COVID-19, get tested with a nasal test. If exposed to COVID-19 and without symptoms, wait at least 3-4 days after exposures before getting tested. After being tested, go home to self-isolate, and remain there until results are reported. Isolation/quarantine must be completed before going back to school or work.

In addition, everyone 6 months of age and older, with rare exceptions, is advised to get flu vaccine every season to reduce the risk of severe illness. Influenza and COVID-19 share the symptoms of fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue, and getting a flu shot can prevent flu or lessen its severity. These similarities may make these illnesses harder to diagnose and treat appropriately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 vaccines may be administered along with other vaccines in the same visit.

There is an urgency to act as Alabama has a net negative intensive care unit bed capacity, children increasingly have COVID-19, and some local coroners have requested morgue trailers. Most of the COVID-19 deaths are among the unvaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines are effective against both asymptomatic and symptomatic infection, severe disease, and death. You can, should, and must do your part and play a critical role in ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(September 2021)

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COVID-19 Vaccination is the Best Protection Against the Highly Contagious Delta Variant

Alabama is seeing increasing cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations each day, the highest numbers since February. The Delta COVID-19 variant, identified in all parts of the state, is now believed to make up over 80 percent of all cases of COVID-19 within Alabama. The emerging evidence about the Delta variant shows that it is easier to spread and produces higher viral loads than earlier versions of the virus, such as the Alpha strain. And, there is evidence now that, unlike what we have experienced with the Alpha strain, persons who are fully vaccinated might be infectious and thus spread the virus to others.

As Alabama is seeing substantial levels of transmission, most counties are at high risk or very high risk. As of July 27, there were 1,083 persons hospitalized, with positive case numbers exceeding 2,000 per day. Of the 2,379 COVID-19 deaths reported from January 19 through June 30, 2021, only 25 deaths were reported among those identified as fully vaccinated, showing that 99 percent of all deaths have occurred in unvaccinated persons.

As a result of the spread of the Delta variant nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that individuals who are in areas where there is substantial or high levels of community transmission, including persons who are fully vaccinated, wear a mask in all indoor settings and follow other mitigation measures to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant. The updated mask guidance should be followed with all persons wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status in order to protect others. With the latest guidance, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) employees regardless of immunization status are again required to wear face coverings while working to help slow the spread of the virus, provided it is medically safe and practical to do so.

CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors in K-12 schools regardless of their vaccination status. Guidelines are based upon scientific evidence and supported by expert groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. ADPH strongly recommends that all persons in schools wear masks as part of a layered approach to reduce the spread of this virus. Local school boards may issue directives for masks as recommended by the guidance. ADPH and CDC guidance will ensure that school administrators and school nurses have the best health information to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in school districts throughout Alabama. These guidelines represent the best evidence available to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, along with disease, potential hospitalization, and risk of death from this virus.

The most effective tools to reduce the spread of COVID-19 continue to be COVID-19 vaccines. Alabama has more than 1,400 locations where free vaccine is available to all, with or without insurance. Vaccines work with the immune system to help fight the virus if exposed, and vaccines offer the best protection against severe illness and death. Vaccines also can help prevent long-term side effects which can persist even after having a mild version of the disease.

The route to a pre-pandemic lifestyle follows the vaccination road. People often have legitimate questions about vaccine safety, and some have health reasons that preclude them from vaccination. There are almost as many complex reasons people give for refusing vaccination as there are people, but those who opt not to be vaccinated and contract the virus put everyone at risk. We urge people who are hesitant to be vaccinated to contact their own healthcare providers or ADPH before concluding they should not be vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus to others, even if they get COVID-19. Severe illnesses and deaths from COVID-19 are overwhelmingly in the unvaccinated. Follow the data and science and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(August 2021)

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You Can Be A Champion

Getting vaccinated is the single most effective way to help end the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is disappointing that Alabama ranks near the bottom of the states in vaccine uptake. A recent survey conducted by the Alabama Hospital Association found that 94 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were not vaccinated. The low percentage of Alabama’s population vaccinated for COVID-19 underscores the need for action to encourage everyone to do their part to reduce illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths by getting vaccinated, especially as new COVID-19 variants emerge throughout the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has presented recommendations that include steps to accomplish this goal. Among them is “Collaborate with trusted messengers—such as faith-based and community leaders—to tailor and share culturally relevant messages and materials with diverse communities.” As a part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 public education campaign, Alabama healthcare organizations have launched the “We Can Do This Alabama” campaign to promote greater levels of vaccination among state residents.

The “We Can Do This Alabama” effort enlists Alabamians to become local champions and share information with their family, friends, colleagues, and community on the importance of getting vaccinated. Participants in this grassroots effort are asked to go to https://www.wecandothisalabama.com/ to register as a local champion to access helpful messaging resources. Then for 4 weeks, champions are asked to encourage three new people each week to get the vaccine and recruit five additional people to serve as local champions.

The material in the “We Can Do This Alabama” campaign toolkit notes that COVID-19 can have serious, life-threatening complications, and there is no way to know its effects. Local champions disseminate clear, complete, and accurate messages about COVID-19 vaccines. Resources provide answers to frequently asked questions on vaccine benefits, effectiveness, safety, possible side effects, and availability. Information about what is known and what is unknown is provided. Other resources in the toolkit include questions to ask doctors about COVID-19 and chronic illness, for caregivers of older adults, communities of color, rural leaders, physicians, and others.

Some Alabamians live in “information bubbles” that are hard to break to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Other people live in pockets of the state where there are low rates of vaccination. Champions who are trusted friends and members of the faith communities of unvaccinated people may make the difference in dispelling myths and answering individual questions. It is helpful to know people personally to communicate effectively one-on-one. Importantly, people who are skeptical about vaccines should discuss vaccines with their healthcare providers. Once a person makes the decision to be vaccinated, champions may offer to help the person by making an appointment, providing transportation, or assisting in other ways, such as sitting with children or older adults.

In addition to the Alabama Department of Public Health, “We Can Do This Alabama” is supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and the following healthcare associations: Alabama Council for Behavioral Healthcare, the Alabama Hospital Association, the Alabama Nursing Home Association, the Alabama Primary Health Care Association, the Alabama State Nurses Association, and the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.

The “We Can Do This Alabama” campaign describes this time in history as “a pivotal moment in ending the pandemic” and calls for COVID-19 vaccination as quickly as possible for as many people as possible. COVID-19 vaccination is an essential tool in helping end the pandemic, and each person who is vaccinated helps assure a healthier community and state.

All Alabamians have an opportunity to be champions by presenting the facts about COVID-19 vaccines to their own circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and others outside their sphere who are hesitant to be vaccinated. By motivating reluctant people to be vaccinated, they are helping prevent the spread of the virus that has taken the lives of more than 11,000 state residents.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(July 2021)

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Protect Youngsters from COVID-19 This Summer

Children ages 5-17 represent less than 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Alabama. While children are more likely to have asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 infections than adults, they may still spread the virus to others.

Even so, it is possible for children to become severely ill and require hospitalization, intensive care, or be on a ventilator. In Alabama, there have been confirmed cases of a rare COVID-19 syndrome, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which causes inflammation throughout a child’s body. The heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, and gastrointestinal organs can be infected. Symptoms of MIS-C include fever, rash, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and heart problems.

Currently, children age 2 and older who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated for COVID-19 are advised to wear masks in public settings, particularly where social distancing is not possible, and when around people who do not live in their household.

No COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for children under 12 years old, and vaccinations for younger children are not expected to be available until later in 2021. The good news is that children age 12 to 18 are now eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Once children and adolescents are fully vaccinated — 2 weeks after their second Pfizer dose — they can engage in summer activities without wearing a mask.

In addition to wearing masks, parents can reduce unvaccinated children’s risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 by choosing safer activities. These include exploring the outdoors, taking a road trip with members of their household, or visiting vaccinated friends or family from another household. It is safer to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols and to have children play outside in the open air and where social distancing is easier. Being in crowds and poorly ventilated spaces puts unvaccinated people, including children, at higher risk for COVID-19. Over the summer months, parents should monitor COVID-19 infection rates in their community and will need to make informed choices to safeguard their children.

No activity is totally risk free: children ride bikes, horses, and all-terrain vehicles; swim in oceans, lakes, ponds, and pools; and suffer falls on playground equipment and skateboards, to name a few. Injuries are still the leading preventable cause of death for children and young people. (Child injury prevention tips are available by going to https://www.cdc.gov/safechild/index.html.)

With the threat of infection with COVID-19 facing children and adults for the second straight summer, however, perhaps the most important safety precaution parents and other eligible people can take is to be vaccinated themselves. Safe, effective, and free vaccines are available throughout the state, and the Alabama Department of Public Health encourages you to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as possible. This will help protect people of all ages.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(June 2021)

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Protect Yourself, Your Family, and Your Community: Get Vaccinated for COVID-19

With the warm springtime weather and enjoyable activities such as Mother’s Day family gatherings, graduation exercises, cookouts, pool parties, and Memorial Day getaways being planned for the month of May, there is an important action item to add to the calendars of many Alabamians.

For those who have not yet received their COVID-19 vaccine, fewer excuses to procrastinate in getting vaccinated remain. The supply of COVID-19 vaccine is now more widely available for eligible adults, and outreach efforts across the state encourage vaccination. Vaccination sites are located in rural areas, urban locations, houses of worship, community centers, shopping centers, pharmacies, and other sites close to homes and workplaces. With more than 1 million Alabama residents already fully vaccinated, there is less demand, more open appointment times, and other convenient opportunities to be vaccinated, some without appointment.

Despite the increased availability of vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy remains a public health challenge as numerous people from different demographic groups are reluctant to be vaccinated due to fear, distrust, confusion, or just complacency. Misinformation is a problem. Three safe and effective vaccines are currently authorized for use in the United States and their use is strongly recommended. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but studies show that persons who are vaccinated and still contract disease have less severe illness and are unlikely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19. The benefits far outweigh the possible side effects posed by vaccine.

People questioning safety and who are concerned about the possible side effects of the free vaccine may wish to look to their own healthcare provider for guidance. Surveys indicate that more than 90 percent of physicians have chosen to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and a person’s healthcare provider is generally the most trusted source of information and advice. This website at alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19vaccine/ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/ has credible, reliable, and updated information as well.

Once vaccinated, it is still not time to let down your guard. Even for people who have been fully vaccinated, it takes the immune system a couple of weeks to build protection against the virus. The CDC recommends the following prevention methods, regardless of vaccination status:

  • You should still take steps to protect yourself and others in many situations, like wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. Take these precautions whenever you gather with unvaccinated people from more than one other household, or visit with an unvaccinated person who is at increased risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, or who lives with a person at increased risk.
  • Continue to watch out for symptoms of COVID-19, especially if you’ve been around someone who is sick. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should get tested, and stay home and away from others. Follow guidance at your workplace.

As more is known, recommendations to prevent getting COVID-19 and transmitting it to others will continue to be made using the latest science. With the emergence of new and more highly transmissible COVID-19 variants, reaching the goal of population (herd) immunity is a race against time. Preliminary data as of late April indicated 6 COVID-19 variants had been identified in Alabama. The CDC cautions that even mild cases of COVID-19 fuel variants, which could lessen vaccine effectiveness.

The sooner most people are vaccinated, the faster Alabamians can return to their pre-pandemic lifestyle. Keep your family and those who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 safe by getting vaccinated.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(May 2021)

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Recommendations Offered for People Fully Vaccinated for COVID-19

More than 600,000 Alabama residents have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 so far, and as the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths decline nationwide and the percentage of the population vaccinated increases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued its first set of public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people.

Masks or other facial coverings will no longer be mandated after April 9 in Alabama, but masks remain one of the most successful tools to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Many businesses and healthcare facilities, including public health departments, will continue to require facial coverings in their facilities. Hospitals and nursing homes are under federal guidance that supports the use of facial coverings, and it is anticipated that the requirement for facial coverings will remain in place at those facilities.

According to the CDC, current guidance applies to people who are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 two or more weeks after they have received the second dose of a 2-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), or two or more weeks after they have received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson and Johnson).

Some recommendations have changed, but others have remained the same. In non-healthcare settings, fully vaccinated people can:

  • Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing
  • Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic

For now, the CDC advises that fully vaccinated people should continue to:

  • Take precautions in public, like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing
  • Wear masks, practice physical distancing, and adhere to other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease (older age, pregnancy, people with certain medical conditions) or who have an unvaccinated household member who is at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease
  • Wear masks, maintain physical distance, and practice other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households
  • Avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings
  • Get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
  • Follow guidance issued by individual employers
  • Follow CDC and health department travel requirements and recommendations

CDC notes this guidance will be updated and expanded based on the level of community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, and the rapidly evolving science on COVID-19 vaccines.

There continue to be many unknowns about COVID-19, such as threats posed by emerging new variants and how long protection lasts for those who are vaccinated. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine, however, may significantly lower your chances of severe disease. Alabama’s supply of safe and effective vaccine continues to increase and soon everyone who wants to be vaccinated will have vaccine available to them. Exercise your personal responsibility and encourage your family, friends, and community to get vaccinated.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(April 2021)

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Page last updated: October 7, 2021