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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's state health officer said Friday that he is cautiously optimistic about improving COVID-19 numbers but urged people to maintain precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

"This is the most optimistic we've been I think maybe since this all began," Dr. Scott Harris told reporters in his weekly briefing.

Three major barometers of the pandemic's severity — hospitalizations, daily new cases and the percent of tests coming back positive — have fallen to levels the state last saw in fall or summer. Although, state health officials expressed alarm when the state hit those numbers last year.

"We are not out of the woods, but we see how to get out of the woods. Please don't stop doing the things that you are doing. This is not the time to ease up wearing your mask. It's not the time to go be in large groups of people," Harris said.

Alabama mirrors the national trend on improving case numbers. Medical officials have offered different possible reasons for the decline.

Harris said there may be increased immunity from both vaccinations and temporary natural immunity from people who have been exposed to the virus. The end of the holiday season, and the large gatherings that come with them, likely also plays a part, he said.

The declining numbers come after a lethal surge in cases around the fall and winter holidays. Alabama set a record for deaths in January.

"More than half of all Alabama's deaths have occurred since Thanksgiving," Harris said.

Since the pandemic began, more than 480,000 confirmed and probable virus cases have been reported in Alabama, and 9,424 people have died.

Alabama is one of the states that saw shipping delays in vaccine doses because of inclement weather conditions. The Alabama Department of Public Health said approximately 10,000 doses were delayed to 21 facilities throughout the state. The doses are being reshipped. The department said much of the state's supply comes through Memphis, Tennessee, which saw transportation delays because of the winter storm.

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