Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama's State Health Officer and the head of the Department of Public Health, urged the people of the Yellowhammer State to keep up their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 as widespread distribution of a vaccine is still months away.

In a Monday morning letter, Harris said the ADPH has not yet tallied all deaths from all causes for 2020, but said preliminary estimates show COVID-19 was more than three times deadlier than the flu and pneumonia combined and it must be taken seriously.

"Every one of those deaths is someone's fellow citizen, friend, or family member," Harris said. "Skeptics opine that COVID-19 mortality is no worse than the flu, and the number of deaths in 2020 is about the same as it would have been by coincidence due to the number of frail elderly persons in the state. That statement is far from the truth."

Even so, Harris said he was optimistic about the future with multiple vaccine products being distributed and therapeutic agents for patients sick with COVID-19 improving every day.

The end may seem to be in sight, he said, but widespread vaccination is still several months away. Harris said Alabama citizens must fight off complacency and maintain their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus even as it spreads into its second year dominating news cycles and public thought.

"Many people are interested in receiving COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available for their risk group; some are even making demands for it, but equitable distribution of vaccine is critical," Harris wrote. "We do not yet have a timeline of when priority groups can receive vaccination because we are dependent on vaccine supply. For many people, access will come in the late spring at best."

That means a lot more of the same in 2021 -- face coverings, social distancing, strict hygiene practices and more.

"Until the majority of the population is vaccinated and more information is available on the vaccines’ ability to stop virus transmission, wearing masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing, avoiding crowded indoor areas, and traveling only when necessary are still needed," Harris said.

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