ALH vaccine clinic

An Athens-Limestone Hospital staff member administers the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, at the hospital's community clinic at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

As the coronavirus pandemic and the delta variant continue their spread, Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks and other mayors across Alabama are taking part in a challenge to get the vaccination rate up by 20% before Labor Day.

Sponsored by multiple state health care organizations, "We Can Do This Alabama" issued a challenge to Alabama mayors last week, calling on them to bring their local vaccination rate up by at least 20% before Sept. 6. The average vaccination rate for an Alabama community is 34%, according to the initiative, which aims to get more Alabamians vaccinated.

Marks said he 100% supports vaccines and has consistently encouraged residents to get vaccinated. He got his own first shot in January, with his second dose two weeks after.

He admitted it's a very emotional issue for residents on either side, but it's an important one. The city recently had to close City Hall to the public due to the rise in cases locally.

"Just like closing City Hall, I don't know exactly the right thing to do, but I would rather err on the side of caution than to have this stuff run rampant," he said. ''It's already serious in our community."

Marks recalled when polio and measles vaccines were first introduced and the lines of people waiting to get theirs. What he doesn't recall is seeing the level of reluctance seen today.

"I don't understand the reluctance," he said. "I am at a loss to try and understand the reluctance (to getting the COVID-19 vaccine)."

From July 3 to Aug. 9, hospitalizations for COVID-19 had increased more than 1,000% in Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The median age of a hospitalized patient was 54, and as of Aug. 9, Alabama had the highest rate of positive tests in the country.

Meanwhile, Alabama has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. ADPH officials have encouraged even those who have already had COVID-19 to get vaccinated, because it's unknown how long natural antibodies will last and current vaccines can prevent severe disease and death from virus variants like the delta variant.

As of Tuesday, each of Alabama's 67 counties was still listed as being at high level of community transmission. In Limestone County, nearly 70 additional people have died this year from the disease, bringing the total to 166 since the pandemic began, with nearly 400 new cases being reported in the last week.

The delta variant is currently the predominant strain across the country and in Alabama, according to ADPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with data showing it is more than twice as contagious as previous variants and two studies showing it is more likely to lead to hospitalization.

At Athens-Limestone Hospital, 80% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Marks said he chose to be vaccinated because he thinks it's important, and he plans to continue encouraging others to get their vaccination, too.

"I absolutely encourage people to be responsible, and I choose to encourage people to be vaccinated and continue to practice the good hygiene, separate when they can, wear masks and let's try to get through this stuff," he said.

Residents can visit to find a vaccination provider. The vaccine is free and available at up to 50 locations within a 25-mile radius of Athens, according to the website, which includes contact information and addresses for each provider.

Residents can also call 1-800-232-0233 for assistance.

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