Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

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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Flu Vaccine Has Many Health Benefits, So Roll Up Your Sleeves

Each year the Alabama Department of Public Health urges all Alabamians to get an influenza (flu) vaccine, especially this year with COVID-19 virus circulating. Flu vaccine has important benefits, like reducing flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work, as well as preventing flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts it is likely that flu viruses will spread along with the COVID-19 virus.

Flu and COVID-19 disease share many of the same symptoms, like fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue, which may make it more difficult to diagnosis and treat. COVID-19 is caused by infection with the new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses. By getting your flu vaccine, it will reduce the chances of possible misdiagnosis and even worse, getting both diseases at the same time.

There are many flu viruses, and they are always changing. Each year a new flu vaccine is made to protect against three or four viruses that are likely to cause disease in the upcoming flu season. Even when the vaccine doesn’t exactly match these viruses, it may still provide some protection.

Vaccine facts and options are as follows:

  • It takes about 2 weeks for protection to develop after vaccination.
  • Influenza vaccine does not cause flu.
  • Influenza vaccine may be given at the same time as other vaccines.
  • With rare exceptions, everyone 6 months of age and older should get an annual flu vaccine by the end of October.

Vaccination of high-risk persons is especially important to decrease their risk of severe flu illness. People at high risk of serious flu complications include young children, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic health conditions. People 65 years and older are also at higher risk from COVID-19. For more information about flu vaccine, please see the Influenza Fast Fact Flyer.

Influenza vaccination also is important for health care workers, and other people who live with or care for people at higher risk to keep from spreading flu to them. This is especially true for people who work in long-term care facilities, which are home to many of the people most vulnerable to flu and COVID-19. People who care for infants younger than 6 months should be vaccinated.

Flu vaccines will not prevent COVID-19, but they will reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths on the health care system. CDC estimates that last season fewer than half of Americans got a flu vaccine and at least 410,000 people were hospitalized from flu. Increased vaccination coverage would reduce that burden. Flu takes a heavy toll on Alabamians, with 257 non-pediatric influenza-associated deaths in 2018, 93 deaths in 2019, and 2 pediatric deaths reported in state residents in each of these years.

I urge you to do your part to prevent influenza. Contact your private physician, pharmacy, or local county health department for a flu clinic schedule. To find a local provider who offers adult flu vaccine, please review the Adult Immunization Provider web page. The more people protected from influenza, the more health care resources will be available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(September 2020)

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Wash Your Hands!

The emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has created a renewed awareness of the need for proper handwashing. Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps to take to avoid becoming sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and conditions are spread by failing to wash hands with soap and clean, running water.

Respiratory viruses such as COVID-19 spread when mucus or droplets containing the virus get into your body through your eyes, nose, or mouth. Most often, this transmission happens through your hands.

To help prevent COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends handwashing for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Although it can be difficult, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

It is especially important to wash your hands:

  • Before eating or preparing food
  • Before touching your face
  • After using the restroom
  • After leaving a public place
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After handling your cloth face covering
  • After changing a diaper
  • After caring for someone sick
  • After touching animals or pets

How should you wash your hands? Wet them with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift soil and microbes from skin. People tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Lathering and scrubbing hands creates friction, which helps lift dirt, grease, and microbes from skin. Microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so the entire hand should be scrubbed. Wash them for 20 seconds or longer. Use whatever song you prefer to time the duration of the handwashing process. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Do not purchase products that contain methanol, a type of wood alcohol that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin. After applying the hand sanitizer, cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. Do not use baby wipes as a substitute; they are not designed to remove germs from your hands. Also, remember that wearing gloves does not negate the need for handwashing. Wash your hands both before and after putting gloves on.

Proper handwashing needs to be routine for everyone, both within and outside the home. In addition to helping prevent the transmission of COVID-19, studies have shown that handwashing can prevent 1 in 3 diarrhea-related illnesses and 1 in 5 respiratory infections, such as cold or flu. It is especially important for parents to set a good example for children by always washing their own hands and insisting that their children make it a habit.

Hand hygiene is an important tool in our state’s response to COVID-19. Handwashing is simple to achieve, costs very little, and is effective in killing germs. Just like wearing facial coverings, frequent and thorough handwashing not only helps protect you, it helps protect those around you from infection.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(August 2020)

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Don’t Succumb to ‘COVID Caution Fatigue’

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has changed behaviors in our society as we have adjusted to new everyday practices that reduce risk. For months you may have been practicing social distancing, washing your hands frequently, using bottle after bottle of hand sanitizer, disinfecting surfaces assiduously, staying home as much as possible, and wearing a face covering in public. You have remained well physically, are tired of following the rules of prevention, and are ready to relax. Perhaps you have a false sense of security if you have not been directly impacted by COVID, if neither you nor anyone with whom you are closely associated has contracted the virus. This condition has been called “COVID caution fatigue.”

Too many people are failing to take precautions and follow the simple steps that have been proven to prevent transmission of the virus. As Alabama is experiencing increased numbers of cases and, regrettably, more deaths, now is not the time to let your guard down. Ignoring the evidence-based guidance poses dangers to you, your family, and your community just because you are experiencing occasional burnout.

Young men and women are thought to drive some of the rise in cases, perhaps because of their perceived invincibility since most cases are mild. Many millennials rely on social media and other sources that are not necessarily qualified to guide health decisions. Other adults mistakenly view practices such as wearing face coverings as political statements. The virus is highly contagious and threatening to everyone. Regardless of age, disability, or underlying risk factors we are all interconnected and can spread the infection to others who are more vulnerable than ourselves.

To offset reckless behavior in this time of uncertainty, experts suggest doing the things that give physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Do not attempt to cope by misusing substances as some Alabamians have done. The Office of Emergency Medical Services found a significant increase in the administration of naloxone for drug overdoses this spring as compared with pre-pandemic levels. Instead of dealing with stress and anxiety by misusing drugs, including alcohol, engage in physical activity, eat nutritious food, drink plenty of water, and get sufficient sleep.

I urge you to carefully consider your actions and be consistent in maintaining your newly acquired habits as we live through this serious pandemic. Ultimately, it is every individual’s responsibility to take the necessary steps to help contain the spread, care for others, and save lives at this unique time. COVID-19 cases and deaths in Alabama continue to rise, but each of us has the power to reverse this alarming trend.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(July 2020)

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Page last updated: January 4, 2021