MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama health officials urged patience Wednesday amid a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, saying the state plans to soon expand who is eligible to get the shots.
The state is in the first phase of its vaccination plan, which prioritizes health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, about 377,000 all together. The state has only received 226,000 vaccines so far, however.
The next group to receive the vaccines are people over 75 and those considered at advance risk. No timeline has been established given that the state doesn't yet have enough vaccines for the first group, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said officials expect to expand distribution soon.
"The vaccine is coming," Harris said. "Even though the number of shots in arms is not as great as we would like, we believe most of the reasons for that have been worked out and are behind us. We are going to start adding additional groups of people very soon and will announce that very soon."
Alabama, along with Mississippi, Georgia, Michigan, Kansas and Arizona, ranks at the bottom for the rate of vaccinations so far, according to numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, the rollout has been slow as states have been left to take care of their own distribution.
As of Sunday, Alabama had distributed about 42,000 of its 226,000 shots, or 821 doses per 100,000 residents. Most states have reached more than 1,000 per 100,000 residents, but few have topped 2,000.
Some health workers who have been eligible for the vaccine have not taken it. Jefferson County State Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said anecdotal evidence suggests that almost 100% of eligible physicians have taken the vaccine in the first round but as many as half of other health care workers have not yet done so, either by choice or because of logistical issues.
Harris said one of the reasons for the slow vaccine distribution is that the state only has 15 sites that can provide the extremely cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine.
Jefferson County has started a hotline to let people know who is eligible for the vaccine and that lets them sign up for text alerts about increased availability, Wilson said.
"We do need people to be patient," he said. "It's going to take a while to work through this. Some people are going to struggle with not understanding why it is not their turn, because a lot of them have a very good reason to get vaccinated, there's no doubt."
Harris said in December that the state expects to get to the 75 and older group this month and will not sit on vaccines. In the meantime, state health officials have cautioned people to continue precautions to prevent infection with the coronavirus, as it will likely be spring or summer before the vaccine is available to those who aren't at increased risk.
"We just hope people will understand that there is just not going to be enough to go around for several more months," Harris said.
At least one county, Calhoun County, has been allowed to start vaccinations of people over age 75 who live in that county. Harris said individual counties that have available vaccine have the flexibility to decide to expand their coverage if supplies allow.
WBRC reported about 900 people in the county got the shots Tuesday. The Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency said it had to cut the line off Wednesday morning because of the number of people waiting.
"I was just thanking God that I'm able to get this today and get it as soon as I could," Joyce Nix told the television station.