Alabama Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told reporters on Tuesday that he thinks that COVID-19 “is here to stay.”

The state has seen record numbers of new cases of coronavirus in the last few days. Harris believes that most of those cases are the new Omicron variant.

“It is very difficult to prove that given the low amount of genomic sequencing that is going on,” Harris said. “It is spreading like wildfire. It will infect everyone in this state at some point, or most of them.

“I think it is already endemic. It is something that we are going to have to deal with like the flu. We had 41 people die with it yesterday, we don’t have that with the flu or the common cold.”

Harris said that according to early data, Omicron is half as deadly as Delta.

Harris asked that we take a moment to remember the 9,310 Alabamians who officials determined died from COVID-19 last year.

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 35,240 people in the state have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the last week. Harris said that the real number is likely much higher than that because the state does not know the number that tested positive with at-home testing.

Harris said that the state is having a difficult time coming up with enough coronavirus tests to meet the demand.

“Testing has become a huge problem for us,” Harris said. “We do not have enough testing to go around.”

“There is some testing going on every day at county health departments,” Harris said.

There had been testing sites up around the state earlier in the pandemic. The state is, “Working to see if we can get testing sites up again.”

Harris is urging Alabamians not to go to the emergency room for coronavirus testing.

“That is not the right place to go,” Harris said. “Please do not go to your hospital for a simple COVID test. The hospitals need to put those resources in other places.”

There are currently over 1,100 Alabamians in hospitals being treated for complications from COVID-19.

Harris said that while that is not as great a number as hospitals were seeing in previous COVID-19 surges, hospitals are incredibly short staffed right now because so many of their employees are out and unable to work since Omicron is the most infectious COVID-19 variant we have seen yet. The hospitals are also having to deal with the flu.

Two new antiviral pills have been given emergency approval by the FDA but there is an enormous shortage.

“At the moment Walmart is the only one who has received them so far,” Harris said. “In terms of the total numbers,…..So far we have 780 courses of the Pfizer.

“The Merck product has not arrived yet In Alabama. We are told that we are going to be allocated 3,000 courses, but so far we have not gotten any.”

ADPH announced two monoclonal antibody treatments have been suspended recently because they were proving ineffective against the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Shipments of those treatments have resumed. Harris said that is because they are effective against the Delta variant, which is still present in Alabama.

Very little genomic testing is being done in Alabama, so officials don’t know what the prevalence of each variant is. In the case of treating a patient, by the time the genomic testing results are back in, it is generally too late for treatment to be effective and the most effective treatments are so hard to get.

Harris is urging everyone to be vaccinated for COVID-19 but acknowledged that the vaccine is far from effective against the Omicron variant.

“Two-thirds of the hospitalized are unvaccinated,” Harris said. “Omicron does cause breakthrough infections so one-third of the hospitalized are vaccinated.”

Harris urged vaccinated Alabamians to get boosted but does not yet have data from Alabama hospitals on breakthrough infections with the boosted.

“We are just over half (vaccinated) so we have a long way to go,” Harris said. “The best states are above 85% and some are approaching 90%.”

Only three states have a lower percentage of their population that is fully vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently decreased the quarantine time for persons who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19 from ten days to five for the general public and seven days for healthcare workers, but ADPH has not yet changed their guidance for students in school.

“This did not apply to the school setting,” said Harris. “As soon as we get additional guidance from CDC we will look at that.”

Harris said that ADPH is urging all of the school systems to have a universal masking policy in place.

Alabama is no longer under an emergency health order. The last Safer Apart Order, effective May 5, ended on May 31, 2021.

U.S. total cases have spiked this week to more than one million new cases per day.

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