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State health officer: Alabama could expand vaccinations before April 9

Asked when the state will open up to the next phase, Harris said it’s possible it will happen before April 9.

Gov. Kay Ivey gave an update on the Coronavirus during a press conference Thursday March 4, 2021 in Montgomery, Ala. (HAL YEAGER/GOVERNORS OFFICE)

The demand for COVID-19 vaccines continues to outstrip Alabama’s supply, the state health officer told reporters Friday, but that could change before Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order runs out on April 9. 

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said what he’s hearing from the federal government is that in six to eight weeks “we’re going to have plenty of product. We’re going to have a whole lot of product.” 

There are approximately 1.5 million people eligible for vaccinations under the state’s current vaccination phase, Harris said, and county health departments are beginning to book appointments into May. 

Asked when the state will open up to the next phase, Harris said it’s possible it will happen before Ivey’s statewide mask mandate expires on April 9. 

“It’s certainly likely that we can expand before this current health order is up, but I really just can’t commit to that until we see how things go,” Harris said. 

Currently, the state is in the Alabama Department of Public Health’s vaccination plan’s phase 1b, with the addition of those aged 65 and older, who are in phase 1c. The next move could expand fully into phase 1c, which includes those aged 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions and other workers deemed critical, which include “transportation and logistics, waste and wastewater, food service, shelter and housing, (e.g. construction), finance (e.g. bank tellers), information technology and communication, energy, legal, media, and public safety.” 

Harris said the state is already beginning to see more doses from the federal government than ever before — around 140,000 first doses weekly — but there still isn’t enough left on shelves to expand eligibility. 

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As of Thursday, the state had administered the first 61 doses of the latest vaccine on the market, from Johnson & Johnson, which, unlike the other two, is a single-dose vaccine. 

Alabama received just more than 40,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, which is being shipped to providers that have not yet received vaccines, to include 49 pharmacies, 58 clinics, additional community health centers, hospitals and rural health clinics, Harris said. 

“We’ve been told that we will not receive Johnson & Johnson probably anymore in the month of March, but at least not for the next three weeks anyway,” Harris said. 

President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act in a move to have the drug company Merck help manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. Johnson & Johnson is under a contract with the federal government to deliver 100 million doses by June. 

Speaking of Ivey’s decision to allow her mask mandate to expire on April 9, Harris said there’s “nothing magical” about the date of April 9, and the same protective measures should be used by the public.  

“April 10th ought to look a lot like April 9th, I hope,” Harris said, and encouraged the public to continue wearing masks even without a legal mandate to do so. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health continues to work on expanding vaccinations in rural areas, where access to medical care is sparse, Harris explained. 

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State health officials were to meet with Alabama National Guard leadership Friday to discuss plans to have two national guard units traveling between different Black Belt region sites four days a week to administer vaccines to those populations, Harris said. 

Harris said the earliest those units are likely to be up and running is March 23, and the target goal is for each unit to administer 1,000 doses daily. 

Harris said while there have been many calls with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about a possible mass vaccination site in Alabama run by the federal agency, there aren’t current plans to do so. 

“But that’s obviously an additional federal resource we would love to have access to,” Harris said. 

Harris noted that the state’s total death toll spiked last year, rising from approximately 53,000 deaths each year since 2015 to nearly 64,500 in 2020. Alabama’s COVID-19 deaths were at 10,122 on Friday

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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