In March, 2021, many people in T-Town had been emboldened to think that the safety precautions that were put into place because of the Covid-19 pandemic were no longer necessary.
Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivy has urged Alabamians to continue to use masks after the state’s mask order expired on April 9th, as AP News reported. 76 year-old Ivy said that she would continue to wear a mask and urged others to as well.
The first concert of 2021 at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater was scheduled to occur in June. As reported by Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News, the Jon Pardi show is “being listed as socially distanced, with reduced capacity, and masking required.”
Alabama‘s A-Day Spring Football Game, according to BamaOnLine‘s Charlie Potter was likely occur with seating limited to a “20-25 percent range.” Whether masks would be required had not been announced at the time of the event’s scheduling.
A story ran in the Tuscaloosa News by Mark Hughes Cobb about the return of the Druid City Arts Festival to the city’s Government Plaza on May 14th, 2021. As many as 13,000 people have attended the festival in the past. Whether there would be social distancing and mask wearing during the outdoor event was not predictable. Many University of Alabama students have routinely not worn masks or socially distanced at bars. Although the University had its final classes of the semester in April, students were still likely to participate in the event. It took place in the Entertainment District, where the open carrying of alcoholic beverages was permitted.
Contributing to the new laissez-faire attitude about Covid-19 that many members of the public seemed to have was the widely published opinion of the nutritional epidemiologist Suzanne Judd in the University of Alabama Birmingham‘s (UAB) Department of Biostatistics.
Judd was quoted in the the UAB News by Holly Gainer as having said:
“We have great data to know how many people tested positive and how many people have been vaccinated. From there, we can estimate how many people have immunity but never received a vaccine and never had a positive test based on studies that have tested immunity in blood. We are able to put these numbers together and come up with the estimate of when we will reach herd immunity, which is May of this year.”
According to the New York Times only about 13% of Alabama residents had been fully vaccinated by March 23, 2021.
Alabama is one of the reddest of red states. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed concern about the “hesitancy reported among supporters of former President Trump” to be vaccinated “due to ‘a natural resistance to government,'” according to The Hill‘s Joseph Choi. There is a high likelihood of a similar reticence among citizens of Alabama to be vaccinated.
In a high poverty state such as Alabama there are barriers other than political ideology to vaccination. WBRC6 reported that the State National Guard had been administering vaccinations in West Alabama. Alabama’s poverty rate has fluctuated from as high as 19% to 15% of its population.
Some epidemiologists are not optimistic about herd immunity ever being established. Writing in the prestigious journal Nature, Christie Aschwanden reported that “the theoretical threshold for vanquishing COVID-19 looks to be out of reach.”
Aschwanden‘s article featured the opinion of several notable epidemiologists. She wrote:
As COVID-19 vaccination rates pick up around the world, people have reasonably begun to ask: how much longer will this pandemic last? It’s an issue surrounded with uncertainties. But the once-popular idea that enough people will eventually gain immunity to SARS-CoV-2 to block most transmission — a ‘herd-immunity threshold’ — is starting to look unlikely.
That threshold is generally achievable only with high vaccination rates, and many scientists had thought that once people started being immunized en masse, herd immunity would permit society to return to normal. Most estimates had placed the threshold at 60–70% of the population gaining immunity, either through vaccinations or past exposure to the virus. But as the pandemic enters its second year, the thinking has begun to shift. In February, independent data scientist Youyang Gu changed the name of his popular COVID-19 forecasting model from ‘Path to Herd Immunity’ to ‘Path to Normality’. He said that reaching a herd-immunity threshold was looking unlikely because of factors such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the delayed arrival of vaccinations for children.
Aschwanden reported that Shweta Bansal, a mathematical biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. had said vaccine effectiveness for halting transmission needs to be “pretty darn high” for herd immunity to matter.
“No community is an island, and the landscape of immunity that surrounds a community really matters,” she says. COVID-19 has occurred in clusters across the United States as a result of people’s behavior or local policies. Previous vaccination efforts suggest that uptake will tend to cluster geographically, too, Bansal adds. Localized resistance to the measles vaccination, for example, has resulted in small pockets of disease resurgence. “Geographic clustering is going to make the path to herd immunity a lot less of a straight line, and essentially means we’ll be playing a game of whack-a-mole with COVID outbreaks.” Even for a country with high vaccination rates, such as Israel, if surrounding countries haven’t done the same and populations are able to mix, the potential for new outbreaks remains.
Aschwanden wrote that “given what’s known about other coronaviruses and the preliminary evidence for SARS-CoV-2, it seems that infection-associated immunity wanes over time, so that needs to be factored in to calculations. Bansal said, “We’re still lacking conclusive data on waning immunity, but we do know it’s not zero and not 100.”
Limiting social contact and continuing protective behaviors such as masking will still be important. She wrote that it will be “hard to stop people reverting to pre-pandemic behavior. Texas and some other US state governments are already lifting mask mandates.”
Who knows? Perhaps Suzanne Judd‘s prediction about Alabama will be accurate. Some people have attributed the lack of a dramatic peak in infections after an largely unmasked crowd of 5,000 amassed to celebrate the University of Alabama football team’s National Championship to “herd immunity.” By May perhaps the 13% figure for people in Alabama who were vaccinated in March could well have dramatically increased. Perhaps T-Town will be someday considered as an anomaly or even model for the rest of the world?