Push for vaccinations grows as COVID-19 variants emerge in Alabama

Updated: Feb. 2, 2021 at 7:38 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As new COVID-19 variants emerge in Alabama, there’s a race to vaccinate as many residents as possible.

Nearly 374,000 doses of vaccine had been administered in Alabama as of Tuesday evening.

“That translates to about 1.1 percent of our population in Alabama being fully vaccinated,” explained Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Infectious Disease Division. “That’s about 6 percent of the population having had a single dose, those numbers aren’t great.”

Marrazzo says models suggest 60 to 70 percent of the population needs to be immune in order to see the impact of the vaccine.

“If that’s going to be the level we’re going to need to get to in Alabama, you can see how long it’s going to take,” acknowledged Marrazzo. “It’s going to be at least a couple of years. It’s not something people want to hear.”

It’s unclear if that threshold could be more or less for the state specifically.

“What is relevant for the population as a whole may be different for Alabama, we have a set of particularly vulnerable people here, in particular for the bad outcomes that we can see from COVID,” she stated.

While there’s no scientific data to support it, Marrazzo believes UAB is already seeing the vaccine’s effect in isolated pockets at the hospital. So far, all employees who elected to be vaccinated have received at least the first dose.

“A few months ago we had a lot of employees who were infected, our employee positivity was very, very high,” said Marrazzo. “Our number of cases in employees has plummeted like a stone, we have seen very few in the last few weeks. If that’s the case, that should be cause for a lot of encouragement.”

Help could be coming soon in the form of a new single dose vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. The latest trial data shows it’s 72 percent effective in preventing COVID-19. Marrazzo said it’s extremely encouraging that a single dose can bring that much efficacy. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90 percent effective, both require two doses to reach that level of protection.

“It’s very exciting for global control of the virus,” added Marrazzo. “The other really important thing about the J&J results, it was spectacularly good at preventing severe disease. In fact, the prevention of severe disease, meaning hospitalization, intubation, and death, is about 85 percent. There were around 50 hospitalizations and deaths in the trial, they all occurred in the placebo group.”

Johnson & Johnson is expected to file for emergency use authorization this week. The latest studies show it’s nearly 70 percent effective globally and nearly 60 percent effective in preventing the concerning COVID-19 variant that’s emerged in south Africa. At this point, experts believe the available vaccines will provide some level of protection against the variants.

“I will mention Moderna and Pfizer are tinkering with their vaccine production so that they can create new booster shots that will cover for these new variants and actually thinking about starting trials as early as March, so that’s the beauty of that platform you can really stay on your toes and create new vaccine types very, very quickly,” Marrazzo said.

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