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Harris: Herd immunity possible by mid-summer if vaccine rate increases

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama could reach herd immunity from COVID-19 by mid-summer, the state’s top doctor told lawmakers on Wednesday. But it could take longer if the vaccine rate continues to decrease.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said around 70% of the state, or 3.5 million Alabamians, will need to either be fully vaccinated or have antibodies from previous infections in order for the state to reach a level of immunity that will stop significant spreading of the disease.

“If we reach herd immunity, what we’ll see is a dramatic decrease in cases but it’s unlikely that it will ever completely disappear,” Harris said.

The herd immunity numbers Harris presented are based off a model from Dr. Suzanne Judd, director of the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Harris said a sign he would like to see that shows herd immunity has been reached is less than 100 new cases a day, or less than 1,400 cases every 14 days, and less than 100 hospitalizations per day.

So far, around 1.5 million Alabamians have received at least one dose of the vaccine while 1.1 million have completed the vaccine series, representing 23% of the total state population, according to Bamatracker’s vaccine dashboard.

Daily vaccines have been steadily decreasing since the beginning of April, which Harris said could be attributed to several factors, but chief among them being vaccine hesitancy.

“In the African-American community, we thought a lot about that because we expected that might be the case, just given Alabama’s history,” Harris said. “But we are also running into hesitancy in white communities too, particularly in rural places, and that’s a completely different kind of hesitancy, and the communication is different.”

Harris said after reviewing national polling data, one of the best ways to bridge that hesitancy is for local doctors and primary care providers to talk with their patients and provide one-on-one counseling that could reassure them to get the vaccine.

“It’s that credibility that doctors have with their patients or other practitioners have with their patients, that I will probably never have by being on television,” Harris said.

How long immunity will last, either from the vaccine or from infections, is another question that has yet to be fully answered. Harris said most research shows that a person who has been naturally infected has around 3-6 months’ worth of immunity while vaccine immunity can begin to fade after four months.

Harris warned that if Alabama wants to avoid another spike in cases, like with what was seen last year around the holiday season, then the vaccine rate needs to increase and yearly COVID-19 vaccines could be a common occurrence, just like the flu vaccine, in the future.

“Heard immunity doesn’t last forever, it last for a while but over time you can lose it if there aren’t new cases for people to get natural antibodies or there aren’t vaccinations on going,” Harris said.

Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham, who asked for Harris to present to the committee, thanked him for acknowledging that many Alabamians have had to drastically change their lives and sacrifice a lot over the past year due to the pandemic.

“I’ve heard from more and more people about that and that process for them is hoping that somebody understands what they’ve done in sacrificing their lives. So this process of informing us helps us inform folks back home,” Mooney said.  

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