In a Wednesday conference call with Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and Dist. 8 State Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, Community Affairs Director Carolyn Bern and Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) Area 5 Administrator Mary Gomillion gave an update on local rollout of new vaccines over the past month to halt the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
Gomillion, who works in DeKalb County, said ADPH administered 882 doses this week through Wednesday, including 512 at a Jan. 18 drive-through vaccine clinic at the Northeast Alabama Agri-Business Center. Doses were given to people 75 and older who waited in line, inside the cars, after healthcare workers and first responders were served. Those people will return in four weeks for the second dose. Another 300 appointments were scheduled through Friday.
“Our first allocation from Pfizer was around 112,000 doses and we’ve received 40,950, so we are not getting doses on a regular basis. Alabama has been allocated 640,150 doses. This doesn’t necessarily mean those vaccines are on the ground right now,” Bern said, noting that a second dose is needed in four weeks for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be effective. “That’s approximately 1.4 million doses of vaccine needed.”
As of Friday, 446,150 doses of vaccine are reported as readily available in the state with 202,643 vaccine doses administered.
“Every day that is accelerating because more and more people are getting the vaccine on the ground,” she said. “Our vaccines came in slowly and getting shots in arms started very slow initially.”
Ledbetter said the state is getting people vaccinated more quickly than media reports might suggest.
Bern explained the allocation process with immunizations prioritized by groups based on risk of exposure and risk of mortality from complications. The first doses are going to 341,000 hospital workers, EMA providers, and nursing home staff and residents.
“Alabama represents 1.4% of the American population,” she said. “Our vaccine allocation is based on 1.4% of the vaccine availability in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not withhold any vaccine, no matter how many doses we have on the ground. We do have some concerns that were shared in DeKalb County about why we didn’t set the age at 65 instead of 75. We were already having a problem getting 1.4 million doses of the vaccine to this population.”
Bern said a proposal for states to open it up to ages 65 and up on a call with federal officials from Operation Warp Speed was discouraged because approximately 500,000 Alabamians fall between the ages of 65 and 75.
“That would be another million doses that we would need. If we opened up to all of these other people who are so deserving, we would still only have 640,000 doses allocated to Alabama, so we are trying to handle this in a way that does not create more chaos on the ground,” she said.
Other groups will receive their shots as follow-up allocations are manufactured and shipped.
“We have volunteers and community partners ready to go. It goes back to how quickly we can manufacture new vaccines,” she said.
Bern reported that four providers in DeKalb County were administering shots, an additional seven just had their refrigeration units validated and three more still need approved. The vaccines require strict handling and storage requirements, so providers must validate that none will be ruined or go to waste.
“The Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold storage, and if you just shake the bottle wrong, you can ruin the vaccine. It is incredibly fragile,” she said. “It is a challenge. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will get emergency use authorization, hopefully in the next month. That would be a game-changer because it only requires one dose and merely has to be refrigerated rather than frozen. Astra Zeneca is another manufacturer who may introduce another vaccine in a month or two.”
Bern said the vaccines are voluntary while Livingston and Ledbetter both said they did not foresee any legislation that might force people to take the vaccines.
Gomillion thanked the City of Rainsville, county law enforcement and the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency for their support during Monday’s drive-through clinic.