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UAB doctor: COVID-19 health emergency ends, but the virus is still here

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Correction: Alabama Public Radio previously reported on Tuesday, May 23: "Data from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows more than 70,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19 since January 2023." That information is incorrect. ADPH data actually shows more than 70,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Alabama since January 2023. The story below has been changed to reflect the correct information. APR regrets the mistake in reporting.

The COVID-19 federal public health emergency ended two weeks ago, but Alabama health leaders say the virus is not completely gone. Data from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows more than 70,000 people in the state have contacted COVID-19 since January 2023.

Dr. Rachael Lee is an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She said the virus is still out there, even if the crisis has been declared over.

“I completely understand wanting to disengage. We all want to go back to normal,” she said. “But I think if we look back at these three years, we learned a lot about how we are connected in our community, how viruses spread. And we are unfortunately, still seeing in the hospitals, cases of severe COVID-19 that can lead to death.”

Vaccines are still recommended for people at higher risk for having the illness. This includes those over the age of 85 and people with comorbidity illness like COPD or diabetes. Dr. Lee said Alabamians should get a booster now if their last vaccine dose was before September of 2022.

“Now's the time to go get one because they all have the Omicron-specific booster in there. We really recommend it, especially for people who are who are at higher risk for having COVID illness,” she explained.

Dr. Lee said the longer it's been since someone has either had the vaccine or had COVID-19, the more likely their immune system has waned. “Getting an updated COVID vaccine actually adds protection to help prevent severe COVID illness, hospitalization and death,” she added. “And so, even if you've had COVID, a free, updated vaccine can boost your immune system, and it can reduce your risk of getting it again.”

Alabama health officials, like Dr. Lee at UAB, continue stressing the need for vaccines. Since the pandemic began more than three years ago, numerous variants have emerged as the virus evolved. Recently, another new variant caught the attention of scientists. It’s known as "Arcturus" or Omicron subvariant XBB.1.16

“It looks like it's responsible for this growing share of encoded infections. It seems like it's starting more like an eye infection like pinkeye, in addition to some other like cold, like symptoms, like coughing and sneezing,” explained Dr. Lee. “We recommend getting that COVID vaccine to help protect against some of the variants.”

Despite COVID rates being at lower levels, doctors in Alabama still insist people adhere to prevention measures, like washing hands frequently, avoiding close contact with people who are sick and staying home if they’re feeling sick or have any COVID symptoms.

“It still impacts a lot of people's lives,” said Dr. Lee. “When you catch COVID-19, you have to stay home from work, and that can potentially spread to your loved ones, which we don't want. So, even though we're tired about talking about it, it's important to remember if you are those who are unvaccinated or not fully up to date, [you’re] still at risk for serious health outcomes.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health continues offering free COVID-19 vaccinations and COVID-19 testing. More information can be found here: https://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19vaccine/

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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