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ADPH preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution; Harris stresses public trust

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala – State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said there are still a lot of unknowns about who will get the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines and when they’ll arrive, but the Alabama Department of Public Health is preparing for distribution.

Some type of vaccine is expected to be ready by the end of this year, but Harris said there will not be enough for mass distribution in the state until spring of next year.

Harris said ensuring public confidence in a vaccine and making sure residents receive accurate information about it is the main concern for ADPH right now.

“We understand there is a political dimension to opposition to the vaccine amongst some people going on in America today, but there are simply just people who have legitimate questions and need to have those questions answered and hopefully answered by a trusted medical provider and a trusted information source,” Harris said. “So we have a lot of work to do with a vaccine program that is arriving this quickly amidst all the other turmoil that’s going on in the country.”

Harris said forming a communication plan is a top priority for ADPH and will involve enlisting community leaders like elected officials, faith leaders and county health departments to help with the dissemination of information.

Public health officials are having conversations with various stakeholders from different backgrounds to get feedback on what communities they don’t normally reach or could have particular difficulties reaching when it comes to vaccine distribution.

Harris said multiple vaccination products will likely be available at the same time and will be approved by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as it does any vaccine on the market.

“We expect that any vaccine that is released to the public is vetted through ACIP and that’s how we expect to know it’s a trustworthy product,” Harris said.

Medical providers who want to distribute the vaccine will have to be registered with Alabama’s Immprint system, an electronic immunization registry that has been used in the state for decades.

Harris explained that most of the vaccine products will require more than one shot, which is why tracking everyone’s immunization will be important.

The vaccine will be free to anyone who wants it and no one will need a primary care doctor’s permission or insurance approval in order to get a vaccine, Harris explained.

“We absolutely want to make sure it’s available to everyone regardless of ability to pay. Again that’s something we believe in very strongly at public health,” Harris said.

Deputy Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said larger drive-thru vaccination sites, similar to the drive thru testing sites ADPH has set up, are a possible option once more doses become available.

Harris also stressed that even when a vaccine is first being administered, Alabamians should still wear a face mask in public and maintain proper social distancing in groups.

“The first day the first vaccine comes to Alabama is not the time to stop doing everything else we’ve been doing,” Harris said.

Harris said that even despite all of the unknown factors of what the vaccine will need in terms of proper storage and handling, he is confident that the state will have the proper resources to handle the products once they come in.

The ADPH will be submitting its plan for receiving, storing, transporting and distributing a vaccine to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. Once it has been evaluated and returned, it will be released to the public, Harris said.

The plan will include what prioritization groups will be the first ones to receive the vaccine. Harris said the first groups will likely include those who are in the CDC’s high-risk category for COVID-19 infections, health care workers, and people at high risk or acquiring and transmitting COVID-19.

The ADPH this year is also getting about 10 to 15 times the amount of influenza vaccines it normally receives.

Harris said this is not only to make sure everyone gets their needed flu shot but also a way to test run how to do mass distribution for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s a time for us to not only roll out flu vaccines because we need to do that, but it also serves as a good way to plan on how we might roll out a COVID vaccine, just in terms of logistics of managing that,” Harris said.

Landers explained that the state’s current COVID-19 cases are at a plateau, but could increase as major holidays approach.

“Certainly as we go into the holiday season, again we have to be consistent in our practices because until we have our vaccine products this is really the only strategy we have to control this virus,” Landers said.

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