Alabama health leaders talk mask guidelines, vaccine hesitancy

Health leaders working to get more shots in arms

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Alabama’s State Health Officer said Thursday the state has hit a wall when it comes to giving out COVID vaccines to slow the spread of the pandemic. So what can be done to get more shots into arms?

Dr. Scott Harris took part in a webinar sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. If you look at the latest numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state now has more than one million people who are fully vaccinated. But there is still a long way to go.

In Alabama, there are about 3.9 million people who are 16 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. The state health department would like to vaccinate about 3.5 million to get close to herd immunity. That means 2.5 million still need to get shots.

Dr. Scott Harris said vaccine hesitancy is real and a problem, especially in rural areas where white, conservative men are refusing to get the shots, that according to their polling.

“We are unlikely to reach them using someone like me. A messenger of government or people who represents public health or people who represents politicians. People who are celebrities. People who are in the media. Those are not trusted sources that many of these people are going to listen to,” said Dr. Harris.

Dr. Harris said they will be reaching out to private physicians to give information and to provide encouragement to their patients to get vaccinated. They found that people generally trust their own doctor.

If you need to get a COVID vaccine, all you have to do is show up at the massive drive-thru vaccination site in Bessemer. The clinic run by FEMA can provide up to a thousand shots a day, but that is not happening.

During the Community Foundation webinar, Dr. David Hicks of the Jefferson County Department of Health addressed the drop in those seeking shots in the county.

The site at Watermark Place opened over a week ago. It can provide up to a thousand shots a day. As of Thursday, there have been a total of 1,254 shots given at the site. That number is well below what the county wants to see.

There are concerns if people are not showing up in large numbers as they hoped, are any vaccine doses being wasted? Are the doses thawed and going to waste?

On Thursday, Dr. Hicks - who oversees vaccinations in the county - said that is not happening because of careful and deliberate planning.

“We are monitoring doses so we don’t draw up excessive doses so they won’t have to be wasted. Even if we drop some doses at the end of the day, we have a list of people who are eligible. We call them and ask if they can come out now. That way we are minimizing any wastage and we are not wasting any vaccine,” Hicks said.

Dr. Hicks said they are in talks with their partners about options if they may close the clinic if people are not using it. Hicks said right now you don’t need to have an appointment, just your insurance card and ID.

Concerns about potential wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses

The webinar also addressed recent changes in guidelines from the CDC about face masks.

A lot of folks are probably letting their face masks down after new guidelines were released this week from the CDC. Now you can drop your masks, as long as you are outdoors, fully vaccinated, and in small crowds.

A lot of people never liked wearing masks. Many didn’t do it, but a lot of people did follow the recommendations. But now that people are getting fully vaccinated, many are asking why?

Wearing face masks is still recommended by the CDC if you are around big crowds and if you are not sure if everyone is vaccinated. Masks are also recommended if you are going indoors or if a business requires it to enter.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said this is a good recommendation for people to follow. Harris understands a lot of people want to drop the masks, especially if they are fully vaccinated. The State Health Officer said the CDC is making these small changes to mask wearing out of caution and following what information they have at this time.

“I think they did the best job they can do with the science out there. There just isn’t enough information out there. Most of these guidelines are based on consensus by experts. We frankly are never going to give scientific studies where we give half the people masks and tell the other half they can’t wear masks. Expose them and see who gets infected,” Dr. Harris said.

Harris said that information would be beneficial, but they are not going to do it. Harris said while the spread of COVID is slowing down, it isn’t dropping enough until more people get vaccinated. He says that’s when people can put away the masks.

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