Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

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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Wear Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19 and Show You Care About Others

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the critical importance of maintaining 6-feet social distancing and has recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public when physical distancing is difficult to maintain. Studies illustrate how COVID-19 can be spread through speaking, coughing, and sneezing--including by asymptomatic people. This is especially important in Alabama where we are experiencing significant community transmission.

Face coverings are simply barrier protections that make a barrier between your face and the air around you. Face coverings prevent you from spreading respiratory droplets and can prevent you from acquiring the virus from others. Making this practice a habit can help keep your family, co-workers, and community safe. This is the simplest act of kindness you can take for your community, especially those who are at high risk of contracting the virus.

Cloth face coverings can help slow the spread of COVID-19 when combined with everyday preventive actions and social distancing in public settings. The only segments of our population who should not use them are children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the face covering without assistance. If persons feel ill when wearing them, they should properly remove the face covering and get fresh air. Ongoing problems with wearing a face covering should be discussed with the person's healthcare provider.

Simple cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost. Others can be purchased at a wide range of price, material, and design.

The CDC provides the following instructions about the use of face coverings:

Wear Your Face Covering Correctly

  • Wash your hands before putting on your face covering
  • Put it over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin
  • Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face
  • Make sure you can breathe easily

Use the Face Covering to Protect Others

  • Wear a face covering to help protect others in case you’re infected but don’t have symptoms
  • Keep the covering on your face the entire time you’re in public
  • Don’t put the covering around your neck or up on your forehead
  • Don’t touch the face covering, and, if you do, wash your hands

Follow Everyday Health Habits

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick
  • Wash your hands often, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds each time
  • Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available

Take Off Your Cloth Face Covering Carefully, When You’re Home

  • Untie the strings behind your head or stretch the ear loops
  • Handle only by the ear loops or ties
  • Fold outside corners together
  • Place covering in the washing machine
  • Be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth when removing and wash hands immediately after removing.

While wearing a face covering in warmer weather is uncomfortable, a cotton face covering will not contribute to heat stress in otherwise healthy persons. Some tips to improve comfort with face coverings in warmer weather include using light-colored cotton material and being sure it fits in a snug manner over the nose and mouth without being tight. Some people find that a face covering with ties is a comfortable way to adjust fit. Having more than one cotton face covering is helpful so that, if the covering becomes damp, another one can be used. Finally, cotton face coverings should be washed and dried daily.

Wearing face coverings is not a substitute for social distancing, washing hands, and staying home while ill, but they are helpful when combined with these primary interventions. Wearing a face covering is an outward and visible way to demonstrate good manners, show respect for others, and help safeguard the health of Alabamians.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(June 2020)

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Safeguard Your Overall Health in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Coronavirus disease, (COVID-19), is a major stressor as Alabama experiences a true state of emergency and one whose end is not yet in sight. No one was fully prepared for the current outbreak which has infected more than 1 million people in our country alone. Everyone’s routines have been changed and many are facing significant financial and other pressures like never before. This time of social distancing finds people may be more vulnerable to emotional and physical illness.

While fear and anxiety about this deadly virus can be overwhelming, experience shows there are ways to cope. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the following:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body.
    -- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
    -- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
    -- Exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep.
    -- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

Taking care of yourself should also involve making proactive steps to safeguard your physical health. Now that Alabama’s stay at home orders have been modified, there are many positive actions that you can take for better health. Preventive care for conditions such as hypertension should not be overlooked. Medical appointments can be kept and elective surgeries that had to be postponed can be rescheduled. Healthcare providers are acutely aware of the risks posed by COVID-19 and know to strictly adhere to infection control measures to protect everyone’s health and safety. Telehealth remains an option for many specialties while you try to stay at home.

Prenatal care is vital as Alabama continues to face an urgent maternal and infant health crisis along with the pandemic. While it is not known whether pregnant women have a greater chance of becoming sick with COVID-19, at this time it appears pregnant women seem to have risks equal to other adults who are not pregnant. Be sure to contact your health care provider to receive recommendations on getting the care you need while preventing the spread of disease, perhaps through telemedicine.

Alabama pediatricians and public health providers recently cautioned that we must maintain high rates of childhood vaccination by adhering to a schedule of vaccinations at recommended intervals. As an example of the need, measles is highly contagious and can be a serious illness in all age groups, especially in preschoolers and adults. One of four people with measles will be hospitalized; a few will get encephalitis and may die. This is especially tragic since measles is largely preventable (more than 97 percent) with vaccination.

Our department’s vision continues to be healthy people, healthy communities, healthy Alabama. Everyone needs to take precautions to prevent COVID-19, but there is no need to panic. We expect recommendations and treatments for this deadly virus will continue to advance. More is being learned each day, so I hope you stay motivated to gain knowledge and continue to consistently follow the practices that will prevent the spread of the disease in your home, community, and state.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(May 2020)

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Stay at home; social distancing is necessary to combat COVID-19

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is changing the way all of us conduct our daily lives, and a welcome change is that social distancing is being practiced in Alabama. I encourage you to be consistent in your efforts to stay at least 6 feet away from other people and avoid situations that would increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Staying home and avoiding close contact with others is necessary to prevent exposure to the virus and to slow its spread. This is especially important if you are at higher risk of severe illness or if you have concerns about getting assistance if you get sick.

COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs. Recent studies indicate that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19.

A person may get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. COVID-19 can live for hours or days on a surface, depending on factors such as sunlight and humidity. Social distancing helps limit contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces.

If doing something would increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19, try to avoid or delay that activity if you can. Stay at home as much as possible, but if you must leave home to shop for food or medicine, the CDC offers these tips for social distancing:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others, including when you have to go out in public, for example to the grocery store. Always stay at least 6 feet away from others, even when you wear a face covering.
  • Use mail-order for medications, if possible.
  • Consider a grocery delivery service.
  • Do not allow in-person playdates for children.
  • Work from home when possible.
  • Avoid using any kind of public transportation if possible. 

Consider other strategies to stay distant from others. For example, if dropping off groceries or medicine for other persons, call ahead and leave items outside. If you need to unpack and put away groceries and other items, have the recipients go to another room while you are in the home. When you return home from running essential errands, be sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

This is the time for every Alabamian to do the right thing for yourself and your community and stay safe at home. Our success in reducing the number of COVID-19 infections depends on you.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(April 2020)

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Page last updated: October 2, 2020