Landers: Get vaccinated so COVID can’t continue to mutate

Dr. Karen Landers from the Alabama Department of Public Health cautions that the number of vaccinations must increase if the state has any hope of getting the COVID-19 epidemic under control. She also urged the public to consider the source of information online before spreading it.

The state has fully vaccinated a third of Alabama’s population. Only 22.8% of DeKalb Countians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The state remains last in the nation in the vaccinations, which prompted Gov. Kay Ivey to place blame on those who’ve resisted getting the shot for it continuing to rapidly spread.

As the pace of vaccinations has slowed, doctors have seen a surge of new cases with a mutated version of the original virus rapidly spreading since July 4th weekend. DeKalb Regional Medical Center has experienced a 33% increase in patients testing since June and has reopened their designated wing of the hospital to prepare for an uptick in cases, according to Marketing Director Kati Burns Mallows. She said they have the staffing and personal protective equipment to provide the appropriate level of care.

The hospital has begun monthly vaccine clinics available to all hospital employees. Shots can also be received at the DeKalb Clinic (only available to those 18 and older at this time), DeKalb Family Medicine and the DeKalb County Health Department.

“The spike in cases and hospitalizations should be alarming to everyone and especially unvaccinated individuals,” said DRMC Administrator Patrick Trammell. “The toll COVID takes in death and direct human suffering, as well as on businesses, is brutal and, at this point, largely preventable with vaccination.”

Landers said that if the disease continues to get opportunities to spread, this gives rise to even more infectious variants that will potentially compromise existing vaccines and antibody therapies, posing an imminent threat to those who have already been immunized. Scientists refer to this process as “vaccine escape.”

“That’s going to happen if we keep giving this virus opportunities to mutate,” she said. “We’ve given COVID enough opportunities. Every time you give COVID a chance to do more destruction, it will. Right now we are at a critical juncture where we can still turn this around. It’s still going to take us weeks, but if we don’t return right now to getting vaccinated and using preventive measures like wearing masks, hand washing, practicing respiratory hygiene, and social distancing, we aren’t going to get this under control and it is going to get far worse than it is today.”

More than 190 people from DeKalb County are believed to have died from COVID-19 since the first positive case was diagnosed 16 months ago. More than 9,300 people have tested positive and other asymptomatic or mild cases have unknowingly spread it to others. The majority do eventually recover, although some experience serious lingering effects.

“You don’t know who’s been vaccinated and who has not, and you can’t really go around asking everyone their vaccination status,” Landers said. “So [wearing a mask] is a reasonable step, even for people who’ve been vaccinated when they are around large groups of people because there have been breakthrough cases. But in those instances, those who’ve been vaccinated have done better than those who’ve not.”

Fort Payne Superintendent Brian Jett recently announced that wearing face coverings and getting vaccinated are matters of “personal preference” rather than a mandate. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has “highly recommended” that schools keep precautions in place to limit the spread. Landers agreed that local systems should set their own rules but schools should revisit policies to protect children because kids under 12 do not have an opportunity to be vaccinated.

ADPH could return to mass vaccination events if demand rose, but there are 1,400 providers statewide offering the shots, including many pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

Concerning disinformation about vaccines spreading across Facebook, Landers said it is unfortunate because “it’s hurting people and will result in preventable deaths. Where does the information [claiming vaccines are unsafe] come from? Does it come from infectious disease specialists? From virologists? From public health physicians? From people who have backgrounds in science and have spent whole careers studying emerging infectious and communicable diseases? No. That information is not coming from vetted scientific sources, it’s just people on the internet who have no qualifications. It’s disheartening to me. They may have good intentions, but when your car breaks down, you take it to a mechanic. When you feel sick, you listen to doctors. This is a medical issue, not a political or social issue.”

Physicians and healthcare providers remain the best source of medical guidance and use clinical judgment and testing to achieve a diagnosis.

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