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Alabama National Guard Sgt. Antwan Marshall gives a COVID-19 vaccination to Shirley Thompson on Friday, April 2, 2021 during a clinic at Wilcox High School in Camden, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — With the potential for crowded churches and big family gatherings over Easter, health officials are urging people to follow Alabama's mandate for face masks and social distancing to avoid a new surge of COVID-19.

Only 663,000 or so of the state's 4.9 million residents are fully vaccinated against the new coronavirus, and Alabama is last in the nation in its rate of immunization. But many congregations are planning indoor services Sunday to celebrate the Christian holiday a year after Easter services were canceled or held outdoors.

Since relatively few people are fully protected against the illness, Dr. Ellen Eaton of the University of Alabama at Birmingham said it's "probably not the time" to participate in large indoor gatherings like church or family meals where people aren't distanced and wearing masks, which are proven to slow the spread of the virus.

"The concern is that with Easter a lot of these spaces are going to be crowded, packed, more children and potentially travelers," Eaton, an infectious diseases expert, told a news briefing Friday.

Relatives coming in from out of town could bring in new strains of virus variants into communities, she said, yet infection likely would be spreading quickly from person to person before health experts even realized an area had become a "hot spot" of illness.

State Health Officer Scott Harris said "we still have a ways to go" in controlling the virus.

"We still want people to be alert, to be careful, to remember the pandemic is not over yet," said Harris, a doctor who leads the Alabama Department of Public Health.

More than 10,600 people have died of COVID-19 in Alabama, and 516,000 confirmed cases have been reported. Cases are at the lowest point since 11 months ago, and the 347 people hospitalized statewide with the illness on Friday was the lowest in almost a year, state statistics showed.

Everyone 16 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in Alabama beginning Monday, and Gov. Kay Ivey has said the state health rule requiring facial coverings in public will expire on Friday. Some businesses and organizations have said they will keep mask rules in place, and the city of Birmingham will consider Tuesday whether to continue requiring face masks.

Birmingham Council President William Parker used a football analogy to explain the need for continuing the rule.

"You can't spike the ball on the 5-yard line. You have to run it into the end zone. And so we're at the five-yard line now. We still have a lot more work to do before we can rid ourselves of COVID-19," Parker told WBRC-TV.

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