Alabama continues to lag behind most of the country in COVID-19 vaccination coverage as public health officials struggle to break through strong vaccine hesitancy across the state.
In a “race to the bottom,” as one official called it, Alabama outranks only Mississippi in vaccination rates. Just over 34% of eligible Alabamians have received at least one vaccine dose, with 29.4% fully vaccinated, according to Mayo Clinic calculations.
“Vaccine hesitancy is very serious right now. We really have reached a point where folks are just trickling in for vaccines,” said Suzanne Judd, an epidemiologist in UAB’s School of Public Health.
Just 34,022 people received a vaccine dose in Alabama between June 3 and June 9, the most recently available seven-day data period. In contrast, single-day totals frequently neared or topped 34,000 through March and April, with an all-time high of 44,402 doses administered on April 9.
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Public health officials say it makes sense vaccine demand surged in mid-spring, as more people became eligible for the shots after a bleak winter surge in hospitalizations and deaths.
But now Alabama faces an uphill battle as vaccine uptake continues to fall.
“We’ve absolutely seen a fall off in the number of people seeking vaccinations since about the middle of April,” said Harris. “It wasn’t a surprise to see the demand fall off, but we’ve really reached a point that a lot of people appear to have made up their minds not to be vaccinated.”
Alabama made an early, aggressive vaccination campaign in the state’s Black Belt region, as the area was hammered with disproportionately high rates of COVID disease and death. The campaign was largely a success, at one pointing ranking among the best in the nation for reaching “vulnerable” communities, and the Black Belt continues to report the highest vaccination rates in the state.
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Officials may have underestimated vaccine hesitancy in other areas of the state, with rural communities with majority white populations recording low rates across the state.
“If we had anticipated the degree of resistance we are facing, by all means we would have tried to alter the timing of those campaigns a little bit,” Harris said. “But it’s no question that African Americans bear the brunt of serious illness and deaths, and they were a priority.”
Men in rural areas are particularly reluctant to seek out a shot, Harris said, and the state is also studying why the lower rates are found in border counties.
“We know that some of those are people who are getting vaccinated across state lines, but there’s no question that there’s hesitancy,” Harris said. “… We’ve had good support, but it’s just difficult to convince people to make the jump sometimes. There are some hardcore anti-vaccine people, but I don’t believe that is most people. I think most people have decided they’re going to wait and see, wait to see what their neighbors do, wait for more information. We have a good chance of overcoming those issues.”
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Harris said hyperlocal campaigns — PSAs or events led by familiar faces, such as a hometown pastor or longtime family doctor — seem particularly helpful in chipping away at hesitancy. The state is also encouraging businesses and cities to offer incentives as they’re able, such as the recent Talladega giveaway or the gift cards offered at a May vaccine clinic.
But due to state law, it is unlikely Alabama will see a statewide incentive like a vaccine lottery, though the program appears to be successful in increasing vaccination rates in states like Ohio.
The good news: New cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID are low across the board. After a difficult year, officials are cautiously optimistic. But Judd, the UAB epidemiologist, said the “pandemic could turn again in the fall.”
“Relying on other people around you to get vaccinated to keep immunity levels high and protect you from COVID is like driving without a seatbelt and trusting that other drivers won’t hit you, animals won’t jump in front of your car and your tire won’t blow out,” Judd said. “The seatbelt keeps you safe when unforeseen things happen on the road. The vaccine keeps you safe when unforeseen things happen with the virus.”
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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