Vaccinations Needed to Guard Against Possible Resurgence of COVID, UAB Professor Says

Dr. Suzanne Judd. Source: Zoom news conference.

A professor from the UAB School of Public Health urged people who are on the fence when it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine to “jump off (and) give it a try.”

“We’ve got millions of people that have been vaccinated with very few side effects,” Dr. Suzanne Judd said Thursday during a Zoom question-and-answer session with the media. “The most important thing is this pandemic could turn again in the fall, and you want to be on the side of being vaccinated if that virus starts circulating rapidly again.”

She said the state may have dodged a bullet in terms of a COVID surge following Memorial Day.

“I actually expected if we saw a surge, we’d see it by today,” she said. “June 10 was the day that I was waiting for to see what was going on. It looks like cases are going down, so it looks like we may not see a surge from Memorial Day.

“Again, I think we’ve got this boost in Alabama because there is some level of immunity from people that had the virus but may not have had a severe infection that will go away eventually. When we hit Labor Day, that same benefit may not be there if those people don’t get vaccinated.”

Judd said slowing rates of vaccinations in Alabama prompt her to believe that herd immunity probably won’t be achieved in the state.

“We really needed about 70 percent of the population to get vaccinated in order to get to herd immunity,” she said. “We really aren’t getting to levels where we’re going to stop the cases, to get to that non-movement of cases.”

The professor said statistics show there are fewer than five COVID cases per 100,000 people.

Another indicator of the situation is the number of people being hospitalized because of COVID, she said.

“If you’re looking at the (Alabama Department of Public Health) tracker, that means less than about 2,800 cases on a 14-day average, which is where we are right now,” Judd said. “I’d also like to see that at less than 200 to indicate that we were at decent levels of immunity to keep the cases down.”

That could change in the future, she said, as people who had immunity from infection see their immunity start to wane.

“We know that about 30 percent of Alabamians have had some level of infection from COVID and have antibodies against it because CDC is regularly testing that,” Judd said. “That 30 percent is providing a little bit of a buffer, in addition to the vaccine, to keep the virus from moving through the population. But the folks that have antibodies from the infection, we know those antibodies may fade eventually; so we really need folks to continue getting vaccinated so that we are in the fall sitting right where we are right now, with less than 2,800 cases every 14 days. That’s a manageable level for the hospital system, for the healthcare system, but it’s not herd immunity.”

The efficacy of the vaccines hasn’t persuaded people to be vaccinated, she said.

“I think that for the most part they know that the vaccine is effective,” she said. “We have to tap into a slightly different motivator for those folks. For those of you that are wondering, that are sitting on the fence if the vaccine is effective, it absolutely is.”

Individuals age 65 and older are pursuing vaccination at the highest rate in Alabama. Also, hospitalizations in that age group have plummeted.

“It’s the 30- and 40- and 50-year-olds that are most commonly in the hospital,” Judd said. “Interestingly, the 20-year-olds are pursuing vaccination at higher rates than those groups as well. We’re starting to see hospitalizations come down in 20-year-olds.”

The professor theorized that persons in their 20s may have lost something that they really wanted socially and see the vaccine as a way to return to normal.

Judd acknowledged frustration because Alabama is “in a race to the bottom with Mississippi” when it comes to lots of public health challenges. Those challenges include getting people to stop smoking and to have healthy diets.

“Alabama is one of those states where we have to work a little bit harder to talk to folks. That said, it’s just an opportunity,” she said. “I look forward to it. I love talking to people about vaccination, about eating healthy, lots of the things that we do in public health to try to change behaviors.

“But this is common in Alabama,” Judd continued. “There’s a general hesitancy here to follow public health guidelines and recommendations. People want to think about it a little bit longer, they want to process it, make sure that they believe it’s safe for them and their family. Again, I welcome those dialogues, they’re great to have. It’s important that we all talk to each other so people do feel comfortable practicing safe public health measures like getting vaccinated.”

Vaccine hesitancy is a serious concern in Alabama, where people are “just trickling in” to get vaccines, Judd said. She dispelled concerns that doses of vaccine would spoil as they go unused. But doses in the state now may not remain here if there is an outbreak elsewhere.

“If there’s no demand, they’re not going to send supply,” she said. “Imagine you’re one of those people who hasn’t been vaccinated, and all of a sudden, a new variant comes on the market and it starts spreading through the population. Those vaccines may have been reallocated to other countries or other states, and may not be available when you need it most.

“Right now we have vaccine, and we have ample supply,” Judd said. “It’s a great time to get vaccinated.”

The “new normal,” Judd said, could look very similar to what’s being seen now. She said some people will still wear masks as they don’t feel well or they don’t want to be in public without a mask.

“You’ll see cases continue to accumulate,” she said. “You may see isolated outbreaks, particularly in communities that are not heavily vaccinated. There may be certain counties or certain cities, certain social organizations that are not choosing to get vaccinated. If you’ve got a population of people not wanting to get vaccinated, you might see an outbreak in that group.”

Judd compared COVID to influenza but said COVID is much more dangerous.

“You’re more likely to wind up in the hospital with COVID,” she said. “It’s more likely to cause death than influenza. This is one that you would much rather get vaccinated for rather than have to deal with the infection.”

Asked about COVID vaccinations for children, Judd said that is a decision to be made by parents. But she left no doubt she thinks that’s an important thing to do.

“Childhood vaccinations have been critical for reducing major infections in children,” she said. “We used to have very high child mortality rates. And although COVID is not one that seems to be particularly dangerous to children, we don’t know what the complications will be in the future.

“We don’t know what the complications from infection are. Your child may wind up with long term consequences – in terms of their heart, in terms of their lungs going forward – if they have an infection. The vaccine is just a much safer way for your child to be protected from this virus that is a very serious virus with serious complications.”