While most Americans believe a vaccine for COVID-19 will be available in 2021, only around half say they’ll get vaccinated according to a recent study.
A leading infectious disease expert at UAB worries, however, that there’s no guarantee researchers can create a safe, effective vaccine for the virus at all, and that if a vaccine does make it to market, making enough doses to protect those in the U.S., and people worldwide, could take some time, and that without a vigilant public, the virus could infect and kill millions more in the U.S.
“Seemingly, a large number of our population doesn’t quite comprehend the power of this pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert at UAB and prominent HIV/AIDs researcher, speaking to APR on Wednesday. “They certainly have heard enough information about it. They’re aware of it. They just haven’t translated that awareness into the meaning.”
Saag said the impact of many people in Alabama getting the virus at one time “is where we’re headed, unfortunately.” Saag cited APR’s reporting Tuesday that shows the number of new confirmed cases statewide have been rising since April 30, and show no sign of slowing.
In a nationwide poll of more than 1,000 Americans conducted May 14-18 and released Wednesday, pollsters found that just 49 percent said they’d get vaccinated, while 20 percent said they would not. The remaining 31 percent said they were unsure. Older Americans were much more likely to say they’d get vaccinated than those under aged 60.
Saag said he worries that if and when a vaccine is available, many who aren’t taking coronavirus seriously, because it hasn’t yet infected them or someone they know, might be less likely to get vaccinated.
“Why would I want a vaccine for something that isn’t real, or isn’t a major thing in my life?” Saag said. “And the second thing is, I think appropriately, is that we don’t know if we’re going to have a vaccine, but if we do, what is the safety profile of that vaccine? And that won’t be known until the large scale efficacy studies are done.”
A majority of those who said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, or 70 percent, said they’d avoid doing so over concerns about side-effects.
“That’s a manageable concern, that the details will matter there,” Saag said.
President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program, announced May 15, aims to supply the U.S. with 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021, which is quicker than any vaccine has been developed and sent into market. There’s been no details from the White House as to how all those doses, if created, would be given to Americans.
“President Trump’s vision for a vaccine by January 2021 will be one of the greatest scientific and humanitarian accomplishments in history, and this is the team that can get it done,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told the Associated Press last week that at least four or five vaccines being developed look promising, and one or two will be ready for large-scale testing by July.
“I’m not still 100 percent confident we’re going to have a vaccine,” Saag told APR on Wednesday. “I’m pretty sure we’re not going to have it in 2020.”
Saag said the best we can hope for is that we have data that shows a vaccine for COVID-19 works by the end of 2020.
“But think about the transition from knowing that something works to getting it scaled up in production, to a level where you have to have 300 million to 600 million vaccines available, just for the United States,” Saag said. “And this is a global pandemic so we’re talking about billions of doses of vaccine. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything like that before.”
Traditional vaccines, which use either a weakened version of a virus or proteins taken from the virus, require much effort to produce, Saag said, which is why we sometimes see shortages in vaccines for the common flu.
“But the vaccines that I think are showing promise here are brand new, or brand new approaches to vaccines,” Saag said.
These new vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA), which are genetic components of the virus that are then injected into a person and can produce the protective proteins that can create immunity, Saag explained.
“The bottom line is the mRNA vaccines will be much, much easier to mass produce,” Saag said. “So I think there’s some hope, if we do have something by the end of this year, that we could in the next year ramp it up, with the right kind of commitment and resources, which will be motivated to do.”
Without a vaccine, the picture becomes much more dire, he explained. To get the epidemic under control we’ll need at least 70 percent of the population to have immunity, Saag said.
“That’s the so-called herd immunity that you hear so much about,” he said. “For us to get to that point without a vaccine is going to take a lot of pain.”
Deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 were approaching 100,000 on Wednesday, and the number of confirmed infections were at 1.6 million.
For the U.S. to get to 70 percent immunity around 210 million people would have to have been infected with COVID-19, Saag said.
“And when you translate that into deaths, even if the death rate is 1 percent, we’re dealing with over 2 million people who will have died,” Saag said.
Saag said what’s important for the public to understand is that “this epidemic does not go away unless we get enough people immune. Unless and until we get herd immunity.”
An effective oral antiviral drug, if researchers can produce one, could be used very early in the course of a COVID-19 infection, Saag said, which could have an impact on outcomes for COVID-19 patients.
“That would abort the progression to more severe disease,” Saag said of an oral antiviral drug.
The giant pharmaceutical company Merck and Miami-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on Tuesday announced the two companies had entered into an agreement to develop the antiviral drug EIDD-2801, which is in early clinical development to treat COVID-19 patients, according to Businesswire.
“I think that that would be the other solution, if we don’t get a vaccine, and I think it’s, I don’t know, a 50 percent chance we’ll get one that works and is safe,” Saag said.
Vaccines are hard to develop, Saag said, adding that for 35 years researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine for HIV.
“Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which is the number one cause of childhood breathing trouble, we’ve tried for 20 years. We’re close on that one but we haven’t got it yet,” Saag said.
“I think this particular virus has a profile that gives me some hope, unlike HIV, which is much more difficult, but I think while we’re waiting for a vaccine the development of effective antiviral therapy may be our bridge,” Saag said. “Without either of those, frankly, we’re in for a long haul with this virus. I’m talking, potentially years of dealing with this virus.”
UAB continues to study and treat some COVID-19 patients with the antiviral drug Remdesivir, the only such antiviral drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on an emergency basis to treat coronavirus patients. Physicians at UAB have said patients have been administered the drug intravenously improve 31 percent faster, but there are limitations with the drug’s use.
Dr. Racheal Lee, a UAB Hospital epidemiologist, in a press briefing on Wednesday said Remdesivir can’t be given to patients who have liver problems and may be less effective for patients who are so sick that they require a ventilator.
“I think we still are waiting to tease out some of these side effects from the medicine, but overall, it appears to be fairly well tolerated, at least based on the initial trial,” Lee said.
“So I’m very hopeful about all the work that has been done on vaccine research,” Lee said, but she warned that there are other complications.
“It will be very difficult though, in terms of getting everybody in the world vaccinated in a particular time frame and also to manufacture those vaccines,” Lee said. “So I think that we as Americans need to be prepared, that we may see another way of infections in the fall, and potentially be prepared that we may have to shelter in place again, if that’s necessary.”
As researchers work to find a vaccine and additional treatments for COVID-19, Saag said it’s up to the public to act in a way that keeps themselves and others safe.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision last week to loosen more restrictions on state businesses and public social life has prompted concern from health experts worried that more confirmed cases and deaths could be the result.
“So this increase that we’re seeing is concerning to me,” said Lee, speaking of the state’s rising new confirmed cases over the past week. “And part of that may be due to relaxing some restrictions. Part of it may be not wearing masks in public or having larger events, which is what we would be concerned about on Memorial Day weekend.”
We could go back to a more restrictive “stay-at-home” order, Sagg said, and that would likely work, but said we’ve got to find other ways forward.
“Two simple things. One. Avoid any large crowd of more than 10 people, and two. Always wear a mask when you’re around anybody else,” Saag said.
Despite much disagreement in the public sphere, cloth masks do work very well to slow the spread of coronavirus, Saag said. Up to 90 percent of the virus’s transmission happens through the aerosol route when someone infected breaths, speaks, sings or shouts, he said.
Saag said people are correct when they question whether a cloth mask that doesn’t fit tightly would protect them from contracting the virus, but said “the answer is, partially” and that wearing a mask can slow the spread in another, important way.
“It will help a little bit, but the reason to wear it is in case I have the infection and don’t know it, and I’m spreading the virus unwittingly, and that protects the people around me,” Saag said.
Lee said what she and many others want to do is be able to send their kids to school safely and go to work safely, but asked what that might look like.
“Does that mean masks? Yes. Does that mean continuing social distancing? Yes. So all of those things have to be part of our planning for the future,” Lee said.
Alabama reports 1,750 new COVID-19 cases ahead of July 4th
The seven-day average of cases per day surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.
Heading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Alabama is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than ever before as hospitalizations continue a worrisome surge and the state’s death toll rises.
Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama on March 30, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
The state reported at least 1,758 positive cases on Friday alone, the most since the pandemic began. In the past seven days, 7,645 cases have been reported, the most of any seven-day period since the pandemic began.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases — used to smooth out daily variability and inconsistencies in case reporting — surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.
Ahead of the holiday, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging Alabamians to celebrate at home due to the coronavirus crisis.
On Friday, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced that another 22 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 just in the last 24 hours. That takes the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983. Of those, 96 died in the last week alone (June 27-July 3).
A few simple steps can greatly reduce your chances of being exposed and exposing others to COVID-19. Everyone should practice good hygiene, cover coughs and sneezes, avoid touching your face and wash hands often. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even inside your home, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others not in your household.
The use of cloth face coverings or masks when in public can greatly reduce the risk of transmission, particularly if the infected individual wears a mask. Many people are contagious before they begin to show symptoms — or may never develop symptoms but are still able to infect others.
Alabama reported an additional 22 deaths Friday, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Of those, 96 died in the past seven days alone, or roughly 10 percent of the state’s total death toll. In the past 14 days, 171 people have died, or roughly 17 percent of the state’s death toll.
Even as the number of tests also increases — at least 430,000 have been tested — a larger percentage of tests are coming back positive compared to any other time period, according to the Department of Public Health and APR‘s tracking.
Roughly 15 percent of tests in the past week have been positive.
The large increases come as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday extended the current “safer-at-home” public health order, which was set to expire Friday, to July 31.
The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 is also at a new high, with at least 843 people hospitalized with the virus on July 2, the most since the pandemic began.
On Monday, in Jefferson County, where cases are increasing rapidly, residents were ordered to wear masks or cloth face coverings in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the city of Mobile also began mandating masks or face coverings. The cities of Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma have also implemented face covering orders.
Of the 7,645 cases confirmed in the last week, 1,321 — or roughly 17 percent — were reported in Jefferson County alone. Nearly 28 percent of Jefferson County’s 4,802 total cases have been reported in the last seven days. Since March, 152 people have died in Jefferson County.
A campaign rally for President Donald Trump that was planned for Mobile on July 11 has been canceled because of the rapidly worsening coronavirus situation there. Mobile County has had 633 newly diagnosed cases in the last week, or roughly 8 percent of the state’s cases this week. Mobile County has had a total of 3,904 cases and 134 deaths over the course of the pandemic.
Montgomery County reported 426 newly diagnosed cases in the last week. Overall Montgomery has had 3,947 total cases and 104 deaths thus far.
Tuscaloosa County has 393 new cases this week. The surging number of cases in Tuscaloosa and Lee Counties — where 276 tested positive this week — could potentially put the 2020 college football season in jeopardy. Tuscaloosa has had a total of 2,188 cases and 42 deaths, while Lee County has a total of 1,302 cases and 37 deaths.
Despite making it through several months with relatively moderate increases, Madison County is also experiencing a surge of new cases in recent weeks — with 407 cases in the last week alone. Madison has had 1,271 cases and seven deaths.
Many people are flocking to the beach for the Fourth of July holiday, where the coronavirus is also surging in Baldwin County with 328 new cases in the last seven days. Baldwin had been largely spared to this point with 828 cases in total and nine deaths. This week’s increase accounts for 40 percent of the county’s total case count.
Alabama is not alone in seeing surging case numbers. Forty of the 50 states reported rising coronavirus cases in the last week. On Thursday, 57,236 new cases were diagnosed and 687 Americans died. The U.S. death toll from the global pandemic has risen to 131,823.
Globally, there have been 11,092,229 cases diagnosed, though the real number is likely much higher. At least 526,450 people have died from COVID-19, and, with 208,860 new cases diagnosed on Thursday alone, there is no sign that this global pandemic will be over any time soon.
Second Julia Tutwiler Prison worker dies after testing positive for COVID-19
The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons.
A second employee at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday.
The worker recently tested positive for coronavirus and has since died, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release, which doesn’t note when exactly the person tested positive or passed away.
The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons.
ADOC last week announced the first death of a prison worker at Tutwiler, while an outbreak of COVID-19 at the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County resulted in the deaths of two men serving there.
As of Thursday there have been 10 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 30 cases among staff at Tutwiler prison. At Staton prison, there were 18 cases among inmates and 23 among workers.
ADOC on Thursday also announced another worker at Tutwiler self-reported that they tested positive for COVID-19, as did a worker at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one at Limestone Correctional Facility.
Additionally, another inmate who was exposed at the infirmary at Staton prison, two and St. Clair Correctional Facility and two at Easterling Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus.
Confirmed cases among staff continue to outpace cases among inmates, and that likely comes down to access to testing. ADOC doesn’t offer free testing for staff, but ask that any worker who tests positive outside of work self-report the test results to the department. Inmates must either be exhibiting symptoms and be tested at the request of an ADOC physician, or they are tested at local hospitals while being treated for other conditions, which is how the majority of confirmed cases among inmates have been identified.
Even though confirmed cases among inmates — 75 as of Thursday — remains much lower than confirmed cases among staff — 171 as of Thursday — nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, while two workers have died after learning they were positive for the virus.
Of the approximately 22,000 inmates in Alabama prisons, 413 have been tested since the start of the pandemic, according to ADOC’s statistics.
Jones urges public to heed surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday pleaded with the public to take COVID-19 seriously, especially now, as reopening of schools and Fourth of July celebrations near. Meanwhile, the state continues to see record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations.
Alabama on Thursday saw a fourth straight day for record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations — and a record number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, when taking into account data collection problems that inflated Monday’s total.
As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were being treated in Alabama hospitals for COVID-19, according to the state health department. That number is an increase of nearly 22 percent over this time last week, and a near 40 percent increase compared to the beginning of June.
At least “961 of our neighbors and family members have lost their lives to COVID-19, and we need to be cognizant of that as well, as those numbers continue to grow,” Jones said during a press briefing Thursday, also noting that over the last 14 days Alabama has seen 11,091 new cases of the virus, which is 28 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases.
Jones said that while we’re testing more people in recent weeks, The Alabama Department of Public Health’s statistics show that a greater percentage of the tests are coming back positive.
Based on a seven-day average, roughly 14 percent of the tests conducted in the state are now coming back positive. Public health experts believe that such a high percentage of positives is a sign that there continues to be community spread of the virus, and that there still isn’t enough testing being done.
Jones said he’s concerned, too, about the timing of the surge in new cases, coming in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey lifted her more rigorous restrictions and after Memorial Day celebrations.
“People did not seem to get the message about social distancing and wearing masks, and we are seeing these numbers increase and increase and increase,” Jones said.
Jones noted the state’s long lines for people seeking help with their unemployment applications, some even camping out overnight to get that help, and said he’s written a letter to Senate leadership asking for federal funding to state departments of labor to better service those in need.
The senator also discussed Oklahoma’s recent expansion of Medicaid, and said that the action made clear state leaders there understand that during the pandemic they needed to get all the help they can to their fellow citizens.
“It is my hope that Alabama will also do likewise. We continue to see a rise in the number of people that could benefit from expanded Medicaid,” Jones said, adding that he’s still working to get another round of incentives to states to encourage expansion of Medicaid.
Asked if there would be another round of stimulus checks sent to individuals, Jones said “maybe.”
Jones said the next round of COVID-19 legislation is being drafted behind closed doors by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky, and that it’s uncertain whether more direct payments to individuals will be included in the final bills.
“I’ve heard mixed messages coming out of the administration and Senator McConnell’s office,” Jones said, adding that he’s for the additional payments and thinks it will be needed going forward.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, speaking during the press conference, said the Montgomery City Council could take up at the next council meeting a measure that would place guidelines on businesses within the city to be held accountable for helping enforce the city’s mask ordinance for the public.
In the absence of a statewide mask order, local governments have been instituting their own in recent weeks. Wearing masks, staying home when at all possible and maintaining social distancing when one can’t are the best ways to reduce spread of the virus, public health experts say.
Montgomery currently has a mask order in place, which carries the possibility of a $25 fine for individuals not following the order.
Reed said at the next meeting, council members may deliberate on a measure to require businesses help ensure the public adheres to the mask order or face possible suspension of their business license “for a couple of weeks, so that is yet to be voted on, and we will look at that.”
Reed said that the point of the city’s mask order isn’t to fine people, however, but to encourage them to wear masks and help save lives. He noted that Montgomery’s mask order has been followed by similar orders in Mobile and Selma, as local municipalities make independent decisions to protect their fellow citizens.
Alabama’s COVID-19 surge is not slowing
The number of patients in Alabama hospitals being treated for COVID-19 surged past 800 on Thursday, marking a fourth straight day of record-high hospitalizations as concerns grow over the possibility that hospitals could become stressed due to the influx of patients.*This story was updated throughout at 4 p.m. on July 2 to reflect updated hospitalization data for Thursday.
As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s data. That’s more than any point prior and an increase of more than 20 percent compared to this time last week — and an increase of 40 percent compared to the beginning of June.
The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases also reached a new high Thursday, as the state added 1,162 cases. On Monday, there were 1,718 cases, but because of delays in data collection, Monday’s numbers included figures from Saturday and Sunday.
The previous daily high was June 25, when the state saw an additional 1,129 cases.
The seven-day and 14-day rolling averages of daily cases both reached record highs this week. The seven-day average reached 981 Tuesday, a record, and remains high at 979. The 14-day average reached 843 Thursday for the first time. Rolling averages are used to smooth out daily inconsistencies and variability in case reporting.
Additionally, the number of tests that are positive remains high. Taking into account incomplete data in April that inflated the numbers then, on Thursday the seven-day average of percent positivity was at 13.64, the third highest percentage since the start of the pandemic. The 14-day average of percent positivity on Thursday of 12.16 was the highest it’s been, taking into account the inflated April numbers.
Public health officials and experts believe the percentage of tests that are positive should be at, or preferably below, 5 percent. Any higher, and the data suggests that the state is not performing enough tests and many cases are still being missed.
At least 81 deaths have been reported in the last seven days, bringing the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 961. In the last two weeks, 160 people have died from COVID-19.