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State health officer stresses vaccines, recommends masks again

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris recommended Tuesday that even those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear masks indoors as virus cases and hospitalizations rise rapidly across Alabama.

Harris’ recommendation comes at the same time the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control’s recommendations that vaccinated people should return to wearing masks indoors, including all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools.

“For an added layer of protection, especially if you’re vulnerable for your age or have chronic health problems, masks make a whole lot of sense,” Harris said. “… If you’re going to be indoors and mixed with people who’s vaccination status you don’t know or people you know to be unvaccinated, then I think I would wear a mask and I would recommend that others wear a mask in those situations.”

Alabama no longer has a statewide mask mandate and Gov. Kay Ivey has called for more vaccinations and personal responsibility, not mandates, to slow the virus.

“Here is the truth: Closing businesses will not defeat COVID-19,” Ivey wrote in a Tuesday opinion column in the Washington Post. “Wearing masks will not defeat COVID-19. And keeping our students from in-classroom learning will not defeat Covid-19.”

She encouraged people to get vaccinated and said those who spread misinformation about vaccines “are reckless and causing great harm to people.”

Harris made the new recommendation as the much more highly infectious COVID-19 delta variant spreads across the state and Alabama’s vaccination rate lags behind every other state in the country. Currently, 1.5 million Alabamians have been fully vaccinated, just 37% of the eligible population.

New COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Alabama and hospitalizations are rapidly increasing at a rate the state has never seen before, Harris said. The state currently has more than 1,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which isn’t as many as during the worst outbreak for the state in January and February. But it’s up significantly from around 180 hospitalizations just earlier this month.

Deaths related to COVID-19 have not been increasing as rapidly as hospitalizations in recent weeks.

“But past experience has taught us that’s typically what happens next,” Harris said. “We have typically seen jumps in cases followed by jumps in hospitalizations followed soon thereafter by jumps in numbers of deaths so we are not looking forward to that happening but we do expect that.”

Most of the new COVID-19 cases being reported are from unvaccinated people and that close to 99% of all hospitalizations and deaths are unvaccinated people, Harris said.

Younger Alabamians are the population most likely to not be vaccinated, with those aged 65 and older in Alabama being around 75-80% vaccinated.

Harris said there are many reasons why Alabamians are not getting vaccinated, some having to do with Alabama’s lack of health care access and false information about the vaccine.

“Most of the people that I’ve heard express hesitancy have really good smart questions but just haven’t gotten information from the right place yet,” Harris said. “There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation out there and if you get most of your news from social media there is a high likelihood that you may not be getting the story correctly and that’s why we want to encourage people to reach out to providers.”

Harris said the health department will be releasing an updated version of its “toolkit” for how schools should go about returning to in-person learning.

He said not much will be changing from the guidance given last year and will be encouraging mask-wearing and three-feet social distancing, especially for those grades with children 12 years old and younger since they cannot currently be vaccinated.

One change Harris said they are making is not requiring quarantines for students labeled as a close contact if they are fully vaccinated and have followed safety protocols.

There are currently more than 30 pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alabama, Harris said.

Harris asks that Alabamians who are choosing not to be vaccinated to think of the risk they are posing to those who can’t get the vaccine due to their age or health concerns.

“With the delta variant that we have circulating right now, if you get infected, you’re probably going to infect three to four other people, that’s just what the numbers show,” Harris said. “So who are those people going to be? Are they going to be people in your family, are they your grandparents, are they your kids, are they people that you work with. We really need people to get vaccinated and we need to put a stop to this disease circulating.”

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