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FILE - The head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, Dr. Scott Harris, is shown in a file photo taken in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 12, 2021. With the Christmas holiday approaching, Harris said the state's COVID-19 numbers are headed in the wrong direction as hospitalizations increase. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP, File)

With COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases on the rise in Alabama, the state will have a limited number of doses of a new drug that can be used to treat the illness, health officials said Thursday.

The state’s initial supply of 780 courses of the Pfizer oral drug Paxlovid, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use as the omicron variant spreads rapidly, will be distributed through pharmacies, the Department of Public Health said in a statement.

Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, said the drug will be available to people who aren’t hospitalized with the illness but isn’t a substitute for vaccinations, “which remain the best way for most people to protect themselves against severe illness and death due to COVID-19.”

“I continue to urge all Alabamians to be vaccinated and receive a booster dose when eligible,” Harris said.

Paxlovid, which will be available by prescription by the first week of January, was authorized for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 symptoms in adults and children. Other states will also receive limited supplies before production and distribution increases, officials said.

Less than half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, and relatively few people are following health recommendations to wear masks in public places and maintain a safe distance from others. In Hoover earlier this week, unmasked holiday shoppers far outnumbered people with covered faces at the state’s largest shopping mall, the Riverchase Galleria.

More than 16,380 people have died of COVID-19 in the state, giving Alabama the nation’s second-highest death rate from the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

Over the last two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 348, or 64.1%, but the state ranks last in the nation for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have jumped more than 70% statewide in a month to more than 430 on Wednesday, but that is still far below levels from early fall when officials said the state’s health care system was in danger of being overwhelmed by the illness.

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