Alabama Vaccine

Dr. Lynn Ridgeway, a pulmonologist, pulls up his sleeve as he receives one of the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines given to front line workers at Helen Keller Hospital on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Sheffield, Ala.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 are rolling out to front-line medical and emergency workers in Cullman County, but the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) says there’s no firm timeline on when the vaccines will be available locally to at-risk groups in the general population.

The vaccine rollout is being coordinated by ADPH through communication with each of Alabama’s 67 counties. With cases and infrastructure varying from one county to the next, that means that the mileage varies considerably from one county to the next when it comes to how soon the general public could be next in line.

In three Alabama counties — Calhoun, Etowah, and DeKalb — drive-thru vaccinations are already being planned for at-risk age groups, which encompass anyone aged 65‐74 years, as well as those from ages 16‐64 with high-risk medical conditions. But in Cullman and other counties, administration of the COVID-19 vaccines (two separate formulations from Pfizer and Moderna) is still in the higher-priority stages of essential medical and emergency services workers.

ADPH recently debuted a new online COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Dashboard, which offers at-a-glance looks at real-time vaccine counts statewide. But it doesn’t project when the vaccines will be made available, county by county, to the several population groups in its multi-tiered rollout schedule.

That schedule, the Alabama COVID-19 Vaccination Allocation Plan, defines the state’s vaccine-eligible populations, as well as the 4-phased order in which they’ll receive the vaccine. A copy of the plan can be viewed online at www.alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/assets/adph-covid19-vaccination-allocation-plan.pdf.

Cullman County Emergency Management Agency director Phyllis Little said Wednesday she’s been fielding a lot of phone calls from concerned local residents who want to know when they’ll be able to get the vaccine. Though Cullman and other county EMAs have helped coordinate vaccine administration for local police, fire, and EMT responders, ADPH hasn’t involved the local EMA in any aspect of its plan to administer the vaccine to the general public.

“The local health department is handling the prioritized administration of when people in the different groups will receive the vaccine,” she explained. “Our role has been to assist in gathering information about first responder groups, which include EMTs, front-line nurses, and then — in the next tier — law enforcement and fire fighters. Cullman Regional has handled the nurse and medical professional group, while we have provided info to ADPH on the others. But we are not involved in administering the vaccine to the public. That is being coordinated through the health department.”

Even as it announced its administration plan, ADPH advised that it would offer no timetable for when people in the plan’s tiered hierarchy would be eligible to receive the vaccine.

In announcing the plan last month, state health officer Dr. Scott Harris said ADPH would not be forecasting the vaccine’s wider availability by day and date. “We want to manage people’s expectations appropriately and remind the public that not everyone can access vaccine at this time. For the New Year’s holiday and beyond, I encourage people to please stay home and keep their events short in duration, outside when possible, and only with everyone wearing masks.”

Harris said there are about 300,000 Alabamians who are eligible to receive the shot in the first round. So far, about 43,000 vaccines have been administered.

If state officials aren’t predicting a public vaccination timeline, that means local officials aren’t able to, either. “I don’t have a timetable for when they’re going into the next phase,” said Little. “People have been calling and wanting to know when their loved ones, elderly people in at-risk groups, can get the vaccine. But when it does become available, the health department will know that before the EMA knows it.”

However long the wait is, the vaccine itself will be free to anyone who wants it. ADPH said it will continue to update its administration plan document, as additional guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) becomes available. “ADPH will provide information as additional COVID-19 vaccine products are received,” the department said in a release.

For more information on Alabama’s administration of the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as tips on diminishing your risk of contracting the virus, visit https://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/prevention.html. 

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