MONTGOMERY — With a possible vaccine for COVID-19 still more than two months away and new cases increasing locally, Alabama health officials said Thursday they already are working to combat the reluctance among some to accept an immunization that's become politically divisive.

Small amounts of vaccines currently in trials could begin arriving by the end of the year, and a communications program to overcome hesitancy by some to receive the shot is a key part of the planning, Dr. Scott Harris said at a briefing on the program.

Treatments for the new coronavirus have a “political dimension” that, when combined with longstanding resistance to vaccines and historical distrust of public health by groups including Black people, will present a challenge to getting as many people as possible to accept vaccination, he said.

The Department of Public Health, which Harris heads, is in contact with medical practices and groups, faith leaders, local officials and legislators in hopes they can help pave the way for acceptance, he said.

“We have a lot of our staff interacting with different groups,” he said.

Even with the expected reluctance among some to get vaccinated, initial supplies will be small and the first doses likely will go to older people, those with health problems that make them more susceptible to the disease and health care staff working in places like nursing homes, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that vaccine will be a scarce resource,” Harris said.

The vaccine will be free to everyone but likely not widely available until next spring, he said.

Alabama has recorded about 170,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, and about 2,760 people have died. Caseloads and hospitalizations that fell after the state required face masks in public haven't gone up as badly as feared since schools began, yet they've also not decreased.

“We believe we’ve sort of leveled out,” said Harris, although some statistics have shown a slight worsening in recent days.

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Local data

Locally, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease have all been trending up.

ADPH on Thursday reported 42 newly infected Morgan County residents, continuing to increase the seven-day average of new cases per day to about 36. That average has been steadily increasing since about Sept. 30, when it was 15. Decatur Morgan Hospital on Thursday had 35 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients, including eight in intensive care and seven on ventilators.

In the last two days, ADPH has confirmed four Limestone County residents have died of the disease. Thirty new Limestone County cases were reported Thursday, about the same as the seven-day average. Athens-Limestone Hospital has 15 COVID-19 patients, including four in intensive care and three on ventilators. 

Two Lawrence County residents were confirmed Thursday as having died from COVID-19. The county had 11 new cases reported Thursday, slightly above its seven-day average of 10.

The state got a jolt Wednesday when the University of Alabama said football coach Nick Saban — who has actively supported face masks and other pandemic safety precautions — had tested positive for COVID-19. Still, health officials said masks, social distancing and hand washing are the best prevention for the illness and will remain important until vaccines are widely available.

The state's mask regulation continues through Nov. 8, and Gov. Kay Ivey could extend it again at that time.

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