Virus Outbreak Alabama

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, backed by State Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mary McIntyre, left, and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, right, speaks with the media after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine at Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. 

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama announced Friday that the state will begin giving COVID-19 vaccinations to people 75 years old or older as well as first responders later this month, opening up eligibility for the coveted shots after a slow initial rollout.

The governor's office and the Alabama Department of Public Health made the announcement as the state reached a milestone of more than 5,000 deaths from the illness as well as record hospitalizations in the wake of holiday gatherings. The state has ranked near the bottom of the nation for the pace of vaccinations.

Gov. Kay Ivey urged people to remain patient because initial vaccine supplies remain limited. The state hot line to schedule an appointment was overwhelmed with calls Friday, receiving more than 300,000 within the first hours of opening, the health department said.

"It is critical for everyone to remain patient; demand is high, and supply is low. ADPH and their partners are working around-the-clock to assist as many people as they can," Ivey said.

The state has so far been in the first phase of its vaccination plan, which prioritizes health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, about 377,000 all together. But some health workers who have been eligible for the vaccine have not taken it.

Alabama had distributed only about 42,000 of its 226,000 shots as of Sunday, so the state is now opening up the shots to some of the people in the next group.

"While there is still an insufficient amount of the vaccine supply, we want to maximize our resources to help protect Alabamians at high risk," State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a statement.

The state Health Department said free COVID-19 vaccinations for people 75 years or older and first-responders — including law enforcement and firefighters — can be made by appointment only. Eligible people can call the ADPH toll-free phone number at 1-855-566-5333, which is answered from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. seven days a week. Appointments will be made on a first-come, first-serve basis, beginning January 18 at locations throughout the state. Health officials urged people to try again later if they get a busy signal because of the massive influx of calls.

Alabama, along with Mississippi, Georgia, Michigan, Kansas and Arizona, ranks at the bottom for the rate of vaccinations so far, according to numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. States have been left to take care of their own distribution.

Since the pandemic began, the state health department has reported more than 394,000 confirmed and probable virus cases and at least 5,191 confirmed and probable virus deaths in Alabama.

While the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms in most people, it can be deadly for some, particularly among the elderly and people with other, serious health problems. Also, a growing number of people who have been sick are dealing with long-term impacts on their quality of life.

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