Vaccine in Alabama still scarce but situation could be better soon, officials say

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — There’s still a limited supply of vaccine coming into Alabama, but the state’s health officer said he believes that could begin to change in the next couple of weeks.

Dr. Scott Harris said Friday morning that Johnson and Johnson’s one-dose vaccine will make things easier once an emergency use authorization is granted by the federal government. Harris said that could happen by the end of February.

The one dose will be easier to handle than the current two-dose options, Harris said, and it is easier to store.

He did caution people against assuming that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine’s lower percentage of effectiveness against the virus means it is not as effective as the versions that are already on the market. He said it is more than 85 percent effective at preventing severe disease, and no one in the trials ended up on a ventilator or died from COVID-19.

“I think we want to keep making that point because some people look at 72 percent effectiveness and go ‘well no, I want to take the other vaccine,'” Harris said. “And we want to make sure people know this is a terrific vaccine and given the scarcity of product we have right now, if you have the opportunity to get a shot you should take it, and you should not try to pick and choose between different brands of vaccine.”

Harris said the scarcity of product in Alabama means that only 349 enrolled providers in the state are getting the Moderna vaccine, and about 25 more are receiving the Pfizer version. The state has more than 1,100 enrolled providers.

“It’s going to get hard to get past this absolute number of providers right now, just because that’s the limitation of the amount of vaccine that we’re getting,” Harris said.

That number was offset this week by mass vaccination clinics across the state that were set up with extra vaccine shipments from the federal government. Those clinics were able to administer more than 70,000 doses, according to Harris.

The federal government’s partnership with Walmart to give vaccine at some of its stores in Alabama will also mean more vaccinations in the state. Those vaccines don’t come from the state’s supply of about 60,000-70,000 doses a week, Harris said, and the state didn’t have any input on which stores were chosen to give out vaccines.

“We’ve certainly heard from a lot of upset people who want to know why they didn’t get vaccine in their Walmart, and the answer is I don’t know,” he said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard added new data this week on who’s receiving the vaccine. Harris said 455,097 people have been vaccinated and of those, 125,553 have received their second dose to complete the process.

Of the people getting vaccinated, data showed just over 58 percent of those people were white, and just over 11 percent were Black. Harris said they did not have race data for another 34 percent of vaccine recipients, but the data seems to be consistent with what other states are seeing.
“I would say 11 percent is not where we would like to be, although there’s a lot of unknown data,” Harris said. “However, that’s more than twice the national average.”

Harris said he believes part of the discrepancy in numbers between white and Black Alabamians was due to an under-representation of Black people in the healthcare provider group, which was the first to receive the vaccine. As more frontline workers in education, manufacturing and other fields become eligible for vaccination, he said it would help to bring in more people of color.

Another concern raised was people who are not in the eligible age range but have serious medical conditions. Harris said the health department is trying to strike a balance in each phase of vaccinations between people who can’t avoid exposure and people who are at risk of serious illness.

“In Alabama, we’re not a healthy state to begin with,” Harris said. “We have a lot of diabetes and heart disease and other things that predispose people to bad health problems, and so adding that chronic disease category might add 2 million people to the list, just that baseline. And so we just don’t have enough vaccine to do it. And we have an allocation plan that’s trying to take into account just how much we have.”

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