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State expands vaccines to those 75 and older

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.

Herb Reeves, EMA director for Pike County, said the ADPH asked individuals not to place calls directly to local hospitals inquiring about the vaccinations.

“We have learned that hospital switchboards are being overwhelmed with phone calls, which is creating an obstacle to patient care,” Reeves said. “Hospitals throughout Alabama are overwhelmed in providing care to both COVID-19 patients as well as responding to all other medical needs of our citizens.”

While hospitals in a few areas of the state have begun vaccinating those 75 years of age and older, most are still working to make sure their frontline workers are vaccinated.  Additional information will be provided when hospitals and locations other than county health departments have vaccine available for additional groups.” Many members of the public have been eager for the expansion of the vaccine rollout, especially as the spread of COVID continues to increase exponentially.

Pike County added 71 new cases on Friday, as the state of Alabama added more than 5,050. Troy University reported another 12 cases among students. Deaths across the state total more than 5,190 and more than 3,000 remain hospitalized with the virus.

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.

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.