Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Wear Face Masks Correctly

As the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic enters its second year, wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the virus continues to be an important way to keep safe and healthy. While the vaccination of thousands of Alabamians and the declining numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are encouraging signs, our optimism is tempered with the arrival of new and more transmissible variants.

Alabamians need to continue the wearing of face coverings and to continue practicing other mitigation measures that work in combination to protect ourselves and others from infection. Regardless of whether masks are voluntary or mandated, they are recommended in public settings where social distancing cannot be maintained.

Masks are important because COVID-19 can be spread through respiratory droplets when infected persons speak, cough, sneeze, or sing. The respiratory droplets can travel through the air about 6 feet and infect other people. Vulnerable people, including the elderly and people of all ages with underlying health conditions, are at increased risk. Furthermore, many people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, but they can unknowingly transmit the virus to others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently provided the following information about the value of mask wearing:

Improve How Your Mask Protects You

Correct and consistent mask use is a critical step everyone can take to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19. Masks work best when everyone wears them, but not all masks provide the same protection. When choosing a mask, look at how well it fits, how well it filters the air, and how many layers it has.

Important ways to make sure your mask works the best it can:

  • Make sure your mask fits snugly against your face. Gaps can let air with respiratory droplets leak in and out around the edges of the mask
  • Pick a mask with layers to keep your respiratory droplets in and others’ out. A mask with layers will stop more respiratory droplets getting inside your mask or escaping from your mask if you are sick.

Do

Choose a mask with a nose wire

  • A nose wire is a metal strip along the top of the mask
  • Nose wires prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask.
  • Bend the nose wire over your nose to fit close to your face.

Use a mask fitter or brace

  • Use a mask fitter or brace over a disposable mask or a cloth mask to prevent air from leaking around the edges of the mask.

Check that it fits snugly over your nose, mouth, and chin

  • Check for gaps by cupping your hands around the outside edges of the mask.
  • Make sure no air is flowing from the area near your eyes or from the sides of the mask.
  • If the mask has a good fit, you will feel warm air come through the front of the mask and may be able to see the mask material move in and out with each breath.

Add layers of material

Two ways to layer

  • Use a cloth mask that has multiple layers of fabric.
  • Wear one disposable mask underneath a cloth mask. The second mask should push the edges of the inner mask against your face.

Make sure you can see and breathe easily

Knot and tuck ear loops of a 3-ply mask

  • Knot the ear loops of a 3-ply face mask where they join the edge of the mask
  • Fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges

Do NOT

Combine two disposable or KN95 masks

  • Disposable masks are not designed to fit tightly. Wearing more than one will not improve fit.
  • Combine a KN95 mask with any other mask.

For more information on science behind improving how your mask protects you, go to Improve the Fit and Filtration of Your Mask to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19.

Respect those around you by wearing a mask consistently when in an indoor space or if you are outdoors and cannot adhere to social distancing. Mask wearing, along with handwashing, limiting close interactions, avoiding crowds, and especially COVID-19 vaccination when eligible and available are the best tools we hold to control the virus and eventually quell the pandemic. Use them.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(March 2021)

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Be Kind to Those You Love, Protect Them from COVID-19

As the pandemic continues, being kind to those you love includes making special efforts to protect them from COVID-19. Over the past year, everyone has had to modify behavior to safeguard themselves and others, and attention has been especially necessary for those most at risk for severe outcomes. While we miss holding the people we most cherish and seeing them in person, we must remember to follow the steps that greatly reduce chances of being exposed and, in turn, exposing them to the virus.

As a reminder, everyone should:

  • Practice good hygiene: cover coughs and sneezes, don't touch your face, and wash hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds or more.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even inside your home.
  • Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others not in your household.
  • Always wear face masks when in public.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used items and touched surfaces often.

Measures such as these will help reduce your chance of exposure to the virus or spreading it to others, but these actions are not all we can do. Vaccines work with your immune system, so it will be ready to fight the virus if you are exposed. We are encouraged that two highly effective vaccines are now being administered to Alabamians, and additional products are expected to be authorized in the near future. There are multiple benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informs us, routine processes and procedures have remained in place to ensure the safety of any vaccine that is authorized or approved for use. The combination of getting vaccinated and following CDC’s recommendations will offer the best protection for your family, friends, and other people from COVID-19.

Another way to be kind to loved ones is to help ensure they see their healthcare providers regularly. People with underlying conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. According to our COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation Plan, high-risk medical conditions include but are not limited to the following: cancer; chronic kidney disease; COPD; heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies; immunocompromised state; solid organ transplant; obesity (body mass index greater than 30); sickle cell disease; smoking; type 1 and 2 diabetes; and pregnancy.

Show your love by encouraging your loved ones to take their prescribed medications, maintain a heart healthy diet, drink plenty of water, get sufficient sleep, and engage in physical activity such as walking. Avoid any unnecessary travel, but if seeing them in person, please be consistent in wearing a mask, social distancing, and limiting the duration of your interactions. If you do not live in the same household, make efforts to connect with loved ones by visiting virtually by video chats, e-mailing, texting, or phoning on a regular basis. Older persons especially may appreciate receiving cards and letters.

The younger generation needs special care. Parents should make and keep appointments for their children’s well-child visits, screenings, and childhood immunizations. In addition to COVID-19, diseases such as measles, influenza, and pertussis can spread easily. Parents should get a flu vaccine themselves, which will also help protect others who may be more vulnerable to severe illness, including babies, young children, and pregnant women. Parents should help their children stay active through regular physical activity each day.

Being kind to those you love doesn’t stop with your family and friends. Remember to be kind to healthcare providers and caretakers who are overworked and most likely overstressed. The pandemic has been especially difficult for parents who have taken on the responsibility of home schooling and educators at all levels, so be understanding of their needs and provide extra help when possible for them as well as students. Be kind to the many people personally impacted by this virus with the loss of family or friends.

Finally, care for others in your community by delaying your vaccination if you have no underlying health issues or have limited contact with other people. This will allow neighbors at higher risk to schedule their COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of you. Please be patient and wait to schedule your own appointment, because the supply of COVID-19 vaccine is expected to remain limited in the months ahead. Being kind to your loved ones during this pandemic means doing your part to prevent COVID-19 and save lives.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(February 2021)

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Slowing Coronavirus Spread is Key in 2021

As the new year begins and we reflect on 2020, we are faced with the sad reality that almost 4,800 Alabamians have died from COVID-19, the highly contagious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Last spring when we learned about the illnesses and deaths due to this highly contagious virus, it was almost unimaginable that our state--much of it rural and without the higher population density of Europe and the Northeast--would reach this level of loss.

While we were initially afraid we would reach such high numbers as a worst-case scenario, by now this deadly virus has become a part of almost everyone’s personal experience. Regrettably, I know many people who have been infected, hospitalized, and died.

Although death totals from all causes have not been tallied for 2020, it is apparent that Alabama has exceeded the number of deaths we would expect to experience in a normal year. Every one of those deaths is someone's fellow citizen, friend, or family member. Skeptics opine that COVID-19 mortality is no worse than the flu, and the number of deaths in 2020 is about the same as it would have been by coincidence due to the number of frail elderly persons in the state. That statement is far from the truth. Fewer than 1,300 people in Alabama succumbed to flu and pneumonia combined in 2018, and COVID-19 has resulted in more than triple the mortality in 2020.

We now have vaccine products and better therapeutic agents for those with the virus. I am optimistic about the future as we embark on a vaccine effort like we have never tried before. Tens of thousands of frontline workers, residents of long-term care, and other very high-risk Alabamians have already received immunizations in cooperation with our community partners.

Many people are interested in receiving COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available for their risk group; some are even making demands for it, but equitable distribution of vaccine is critical. We do not yet have a timeline of when priority groups can receive vaccination because we are dependent on vaccine supply. For many people, access will come in the late spring at best.

After the first phases of vaccine administration, however, we will face the complicated challenge of convincing a larger number of people about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine. Many Alabamians are hesitant to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons, including misinformation. Certainly, a segment of the population mistrusts all vaccines and the system in general, and those people are difficult to convince. Many more people have concerns about the technology used to develop and approve the vaccine rapidly; they want to make sure it is safe; and know more about possible side effects before they are immunized. Questions raised by the public are appropriate and we need to be responsive to their concerns.

We must take different approaches to reach all populations in the state by providing clear, accurate, and culturally sensitive information about COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and vaccines. Some segments of the population may be hard to reach. Race history in Alabama is checkered, and opinions are influenced by events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Many African American Alabamians remain unsure whether they can believe what public health tells them. To counteract these longstanding uncertainties and fears, our department is working with members of the African American community, including pastoral organizations, faith leaders, the League of Black Mayors, local public officials, and others. Their trusted voices will carry well-informed, data-driven, and credible messages to their own congregations and constituents.

Despite erroneous reports to the contrary, Alabama does not mandate vaccination. Regardless of vaccine uptake, which we hope will be significant, pandemic protocols must continue to be practiced for many months. Until the majority of the population is vaccinated and more information is available on the vaccines’ ability to stop virus transmission, wearing masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing, avoiding crowded indoor areas, and traveling only when necessary are still needed. Masks serve as a powerful social symbol to remind people to protect themselves and others. We have always known that masks are not magic, but they are effective. The best indication we have is that it only took two weeks for Alabama’s COVID-19 infection rates to decrease after a mask mandate began in July.

As 2021 begins, our deepest sympathies are with the families and friends who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. Anyone can get and spread COVID-19, so it is our responsibility as citizens to be kind to other people and to take all necessary steps to prevent them from being at risk. This includes getting vaccinated, returning for the second dose of vaccine, and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations regarding prevention measures. When a substantial portion of the public is vaccinated, we look forward to a time when the pandemic will end.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(January 2021)

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Keep This Season Full of Hope and Protect Others

“I Miss Precedented Times.” That’s a T-shirt slogan seen recently, and indeed the year 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus COVID-19. As December begins and the weather becomes colder, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have increased in Alabama, and it is feared that activities associated with the upcoming holidays may lead to unprecedented COVID-19 surges. Due to ongoing community transmission, it continues to be important for everyone to follow all preventive measures assiduously. COVID-19 threatens all of us, not just those with underlying risk factors or people of advanced age.

In December, people tend to spend more time indoors where the risk of exposure is greater and asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people may be too close. Friends, family, and associates may be careless and inconsistent in following commonsense prevention measures that have been proven to prevent transmission of this highly contagious virus. This failing can be compounded by stress and anxiety associated with the holiday season, which when coupled with the pandemic may lead to risky behaviors including substance abuse.

Increased travel during the Thanksgiving holidays, despite travel advisories to stay at home, foreshadow serious consequences in the weeks ahead if the public lets its guard down and ignores personal responsibility. Leading up to the holidays, consider ways your plans can be modified to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This may mean hosting remote celebrations and exchanging gifts with family and friends using contactless deliveries. Do not let your guard down, because there is hope.

Despite rising case numbers, there are many reasons to be encouraged. Several treatment modalities are now available, including a newly authorized monoclonal antibody treatment for outpatients which decreases hospital admissions for COVID-19 and the antiviral medication remdesivir that has been found to shorten hospital stays.

With the anticipated emergency use authorization of vaccines produced by several pharmaceutical companies, Alabama is making plans to vaccinate critical healthcare workers and residents of long term care this month, and to continue the vaccine rollout through spring. The goal of the plan is to distribute a widely available COVID-19 vaccine which is safe, effective, and equitably distributed. This vaccine is especially important for vulnerable populations living in rural and low-income urban areas.

Rest assured that Alabama will adhere to COVID-19 vaccine storage and handling requirements. While documentation and regular reporting of vaccine administration will be required, patient privacy will be protected.

Remember that we are in the midst of a serious pandemic, so I urge you to carefully consider your actions and be consistent in maintaining good COVID-19 prevention habits. During this holiday season, care for others, and keep the health and safety of seniors and those with chronic health conditions especially in mind. Enjoy the holidays, and please keep yourself, your family, friends, and others safe for a happy 2021.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(December 2020)

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Continuing Cancer Treatment During the Pandemic Remains Important

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is a new disease, so data about its impact on underlying medical conditions is limited. Cancer is among the medical conditions considered to be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Fear of infection with COVID-19 understandably causes some cancer patients to be reluctant to maintain their treatment plan. As we await approval of a safe and effective vaccine for the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that cancer patients and survivors need to take special precautions to protect themselves, their family members, and caregivers to stay healthy during the pandemic.

People who have cancer now, especially those who are treated with chemotherapy, are more likely to get an infection because chemotherapy can weaken the immune system. For this same reason, the infection may be more severe for some patients. At this time, it is not known whether having a history of cancer increases risk.

The CDC recommends cancer patients take these actions:

  • Have a conversation with your healthcare provider or care team to discuss your individual level of risk based on your condition, your treatment, and the level of transmission in your community.
  • Do not stop taking your medicines or alter your treatment plan without talking to your healthcare provider.
  • Make sure that you have at least a 30-day supply of your medicines.
  • Do not delay life-saving treatment or emergency care.
  • Call your healthcare provider or care team if you have concerns about your condition, your treatment, think you may have been exposed to COVID-19, or have any other questions.
  • For more information on preventing infections for people with cancer, go to cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/index.htm

This critical population group should do the following, the CDC advises:

  • Watch out for fever. Take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well. Call your doctor right away if you have a temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher.
  • Clean your hands. Many diseases are spread by not cleaning your hands, which is especially dangerous when you are getting chemotherapy treatment. Wash your hands often.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of infection. Infection during chemotherapy can lead to hospitalization or death. Call your doctor right away if you notice any of the signs and symptoms of an infection.
  • Avoid other people as much as possible (practice social distancing). Avoid leaving home as much as possible. Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between you and non-household members. If you must leave home, avoid places where people congregate. Have supplies and food delivered to your home.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others to protect other people in case you are infected, and ask others to do the same.

For more information, visit cdc.gov/cancer/survivors/staying-well-at-home.htm.

It is also very important for people who live with or take care of people with cancer to take steps to keep themselves healthy. As a caregiver, it is important that they take care of themselves. Following the proper protocol is essential to help lower the chance of spreading an infection to the person with cancer.

Caregivers and household members must remember that if they become infected with COVID-19, they risk infecting the cancer patient. Therefore, to minimize their risk of becoming infected, they should observe the precautions recommended for the cancer patient as much as possible. In addition to being aware of symptoms of infection, cleaning hands often, and social distancing, caregivers who become ill must immediately separate themselves from the cancer patient and make arrangements for someone else to care for the patient.

Coping with the risks of COVID-19 while being treated for cancer is especially challenging. There are many questions and uncertainties, but following the recommendations of healthcare providers can help make it easier to stay safe and recover sooner.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(November 2020)

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Keep Health and Safety Foremost for Fall Festivities in 2020

October is the month when public health traditionally offers Alabamians guidance for safe trick-or-treating and other seasonal festivities. This year, important recommendations center on those intended to protect families, friends, and communities from contracting the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and by not spreading the virus to others.

The regrettable news for many people is that staying socially distanced from others is necessary to help stop COVID-19 transmission. Adults and children who may have COVID-19 or may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 should not participate in any in-person festivities. This recommendation also is made for people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or who live or work with someone at increased risk.

For others planning fall or harvest festivities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the following factors be considered based on level of risk:

  • Community levels of COVID-19
  • Location – outdoors is better
  • Duration – shorter time is better
  • Number of people gathered – fewer is better
  • Where attendees are traveling from
  • Behaviors of attendees prior to the gathering – social distancing, mask wearing, handwashing
  • Behaviors during the gathering

Despite the necessary limitations on the size of gatherings and other pandemic concerns, especially for those at high risk, children can still enjoy a fun-filled season because there are other creative and safer ways to celebrate while following COVID-19 protocols.

Although it is recommended that families forego some Halloween activities such as indoor haunted houses and hayrides, trick-or-treating can still be enjoyed provided parents take precautions and supervise. Children should not be allowed to gather in groups with others living outside their households. After assessing risks, adults need to emphasize the importance of consistent hand hygiene, proper mask wearing, and social distancing. Children should wash their hands before setting out and after returning home and use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available on their routes.

Regular Halloween costume masks cannot substitute for protective cloth masks. No one should wear a costume mask over a cloth mask. CDC suggests wearing Halloween-themed cloth masks made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that cover mouth and nose and do not leave gaps around the face. Treats can be individually wrapped and bagged for grab-and-go distribution, and trick-or-treaters can be greeted from a distance.

Traditional injury prevention and health precautions for Halloween trick-or-treating hold true, even in 2020. As always, responsible adult supervision is key. Safety measures include the following:

  • Be sure to wear only flame-resistant costumes, wigs, and accessories.
  • Add reflective tape to costumes.
  • Do not wear decorative contact lenses; they can cause eye injuries.
  • Be careful to prevent accidental cuts when carving pumpkins.
  • Keep candle-lit jack-o’-lanterns away from doorsteps, walkways, landings, and curtains.
  • Place jack-o’-lanterns on sturdy tables, keep them out of the reach of pets and small children.
  • Never walk near lit candles or luminaries and avoid distraction from electronic devices.
  • Make sure walking areas and stairs are well-lit and free of obstacles.
  • Consider providing non-food treats such as crayons and coloring books.
  • Examine treats for choking hazards before eating them; limit the amount of sugary and sticky candies consumed.

Go to cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html for additional recommendations.

With everyone’s cooperation, behavior modification, and consideration for one another, it is hoped we will meet the health and safety challenges and reflect on fall 2020 as a season when each of us did our part to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections in our communities and state.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(October 2020)

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Page last updated: April 1, 2021