Health officials keeping close eye on COVID-19 variants; reaching herd immunity still a challenge

Updated: Mar. 26, 2021 at 8:19 AM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - As of Friday morning, 581,000 Alabamians are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Although cases remain low, health officials are keeping a close eye on variants and some say the vaccine distribution process needs some adjusting to stay ahead of the variants.

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Ali Hassoun of Huntsville Hospital believes Alabama needs to steer away from the idea of phases and make everyone eligible for vaccination as soon as possible. He fears if the pace doesn’t pick up, we won’t reach herd immunity before variants of the COVID-19 virus take over.

“We need to reach herd immunity with vaccination as quickly as possible because if we leave it as such, with continuous -- even low level transmission in Alabama -- the virus is going to mutate more and reach a point where treatment is not effective,” Hassoun said.

At least 99 variant strain cases have been identified in our state, almost all of them are the UK variant. In general, the UK variant is about 60 percent more transmissible than the original one.

“I really think the other variants, between those described in South Africa and described in Brazil, are likely to be here as well,” Hassoun said.

Hassoun also spoke about the mask mandate. He says the April 9 cutoff is not a good idea and advises people to continue following precautionary measures.

“The state of Alabama needs to continue with the mandate of masking. I know they want to end it April 9…I don’t think it’s a good idea at the moment. I think they need to emphasize how important it is to continue the prevention until we reach the herd immunity with the vaccination,” Hassoun said.

Overall, Hassoun believes the state is unconsciously creating a perfect storm for the virus to mutate, which in turn will make the vaccine and even other treatments less effective.

“A lot of states around us, they opened it to everyone to 16 and above and I think the state of Alabama needs to do the same. And they need to do it now, they cannot just keep waiting and saying, ‘we need to vaccinate’. I understand the dosing might not be available, but if you look at their data they are saying they are using 60 percent of the doses, so there is about 40 percent that has not been used,” Hassoun said.

The three companies with vaccines authorized in the U.S. have been working to make sure their product provides protection against the variants, mainly in the form of booster shots. However, that means the first dose of the vaccine needs to reach everyone, quickly.

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