Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

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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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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Page last updated: July 1, 2021