MONTGOMERY — Alabama could reach herd immunity from COVID-19 by mid-summer, the state’s top doctor told lawmakers on Wednesday. But it could take longer if the vaccination rate continues to decrease.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said around 70% of the state, or 3.5 million Alabamians, will need to either be fully vaccinated or have antibodies from previous infections in order for the state to reach a level of immunity that will stop significant spread of the disease.
“If we reach herd immunity, what we’ll see is a dramatic decrease in cases, but it’s unlikely that it will ever completely disappear,” Harris said.
The herd immunity numbers Harris presented are based on a model from Dr. Suzanne Judd, director of the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Harris said a sign he would view as herd immunity would be the reporting of fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19 a day in Alabama — less than 1,400 cases every two weeks — and fewer than 100 hospitalizations a day from the disease.
So far, around 1.5 million Alabamians have received at least one dose of the vaccine while 1.1 million have completed the vaccine series, representing 23% of the total state population, according to Bamatracker’s vaccine dashboard.
Daily vaccines have been steadily decreasing since the beginning of April, which Harris said could be attributed to several factors, chief among them being vaccine hesitancy.
“In the African-American community, we thought a lot about that because we expected that might be the case, just given Alabama’s history,” Harris said. “But we are also running into hesitancy in white communities too, particularly in rural places, and that’s a completely different kind of hesitancy, and the communication is different.”
Harris said he had reviewed national polling data, and one of the best ways to bridge that hesitancy is for local doctors and primary care providers to talk with their patients and provide one-on-one counseling that could reassure them to get the vaccine.
“It’s that credibility that doctors have with their patients or other practitioners have with their patients, that I will probably never have by being on television,” Harris said.
How long immunity will last, either from the vaccine or from infections, is another question that has yet to be fully answered. Harris said most research shows that a person who has been naturally infected has around three to six months of immunity, while vaccine immunity can begin to fade after four months.
Harris warned that if Alabama wants to avoid another spike in cases, like what was seen last year around the holiday season, then the vaccine rate needs to increase. He said yearly COVID-19 vaccinations could be a common occurrence, such as with the flu vaccine, in the future.
“Heard immunity doesn’t last forever, it lasts for a while but over time you can lose it if there aren’t new cases for people to get natural antibodies or there aren’t vaccinations ongoing,” Harris said.
Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham, who asked for Harris to present to the committee, thanked him for acknowledging that many Alabamians have had to drastically change their lives and sacrifice a lot over the past year due to the pandemic.
“I’ve heard from more and more people about that, and that process for them is hoping that somebody understands what they’ve done in sacrificing their lives. So this process of informing us helps us inform folks back home,” Mooney said.