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Mobile is first Alabama county to record 1,000 COVID-19 cases

Chip Brownlee

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The number of people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Mobile County has surpassed 1,000, making it the first county in Alabama to record more than a thousand cases of the virus as the city and county say they will begin to ease local restrictions.

The latest data from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows that at least 1,010 cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been found in the county on the Gulf Coast. Jefferson County, which had the most lab-confirmed cases during the first weeks of the outbreak, had 870 cases as of Wednesday morning.

“Please, please, please continue to maintain your personal responsibility and the safety of others,” Mobile Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold said at a press conference Tuesday discussing the county and city easing some local restrictions. “There is no cure and there is no vaccine for this illness, so it will be with us for months.”

At least 46 people have died from COVID-19 in Mobile, according to the health department. In Jefferson County, 42 people have died. Even as Mobile reached a grim new milestone, several more rural counties with smaller populations have recorded far more cases per capita.

Chambers County, which has 291 confirmed cases, has 875 cases per 100,000 people, more than three times the number in Mobile County, which has 244 confirmed cases per 100,000. Chambers County also has the highest deaths per 100,000 people.

Part of Mobile’s rapid growth in new COVID-19 cases has to do with expanded testing in the county in recent weeks. During the first several weeks of the pandemic in March, testing was far more limited in Mobile County than in the state’s other more populous counties like Jefferson and Madison counties.

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Still, fewer people in both absolute numbers and per capita have been tested for the virus in Mobile County. Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham were faster to implement stay-at-home and social-distancing restrictions than Mobile County or the city of Mobile. Going forward, Birmingham is also taking a more strict approach to wearing masks in public. The Birmingham City Council Tuesday passed an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public.

“In some ways, we have our own social experiment that’s already happened,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious diseases specialist at UAB in Birmingham and a renowned public health expert. “And the preliminary data indicate that what Jefferson County did worked, relative to the counties that were slow to respond. You know right away, it underscores the value of the study of public health, and the implementation of standard practices. So we’re going to see what happens next.”

State health officials and Gov. Kay Ivey during a press Tuesday that the state would be lifting its stay-at-home order beginning Thursday at 5 p.m. Namely, the order allows retail businesses to reopen at 50 percent capacity. Restaurants must continue take-out and delivery only service. Bars, large venues and close-contact businesses like barbershops and salons will remain closed.

Beaches will also open Thursday evening with social-distancing restrictions.

Eichold and Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Tuesday that Ivey’s order was more restrictive than he would have liked, but that he was happy it was based on data and federal guidance.

“There are people who think she went too far opening the beaches and allowing the retail to open,” Stimpson said. “But there are others who said she should have been stronger and not done anything. I don’t think everybody is satisfied with it, but I do know this, she is genuinely concerned about your health and everybody’s health.”

Stimpson said there are as many opinions as there are people, and he will continue to follow the governor’s lead.

“Our opinion doesn’t really matter at this point,” Stimpson said. “We are responsible for our own health. As the mayor of Mobile, the county commission, the public health department, we’re going to take our responsibilities and support the government.”

Eichold said even though the state has not met the White House’s gating criteria for reopening, he agrees the state needs to reopen gradually.

“We’ve got relatively flat numbers right now. We’ve had increases in certain populations in our community, those who are older and at-risk communities,” Eichold said. “We’ve got to take very, very careful baby steps forward. … People need to have personal responsibility. You need to take it seriously.”

Beginning Thursday, the city of Mobile will cease enforcement of its COVID-19 curfew, which has been in place since April 3.

“We’re going to have to manage the relative heterogeneity, for lack of a better word, from county to county responses,” UAB’s Dr. Saag said. “What I would hope would happen is that all the counties will look at each other’s experiences. And then we can hone in on a standard that can be applied more universally throughout the state. I sense that’s what the governor is doing in her cautiousness. And that is really a great thing for right now.”

While Mobile is lifting some restrictions and easing enforcement of its curfew, the mayor said residents shoulds still stay at home, practice social-distancing and wear masks.

“We are still encouraging citizens to stay home if possible and to be aware that the state order still limits any gatherings to fewer than 10 people,” Stimpson said in a statement Tuesday. “We must remember that COVID-19 is still spreading within our community. It would be wrong to assume that the battle is won. We must all continue to practice social distancing and follow good hygiene practices.”

Ivey and State Health Officer Scott Harris said Tuesday that Alabamians should not interpret the easing of restrictions as a message that the threat from the virus is gone.

“Let me be abundantly clear,” Ivey said Tuesday. “The threat of COVID-19 is not over. We’re still seeing the virus spread and all our people are susceptible to the infection.”

The new “safer-at-home” order will remain in place until at least May 15, when the situation may be re-evaluated. State Health Officer Scott Harris told APR Monday that if the situation worsens, the state may “dial back” easing of restrictions. If the situation continues to improve, Alabama will continue to ease restrictions.

Mobile’s health officer said he was concerned about data out of the University of Maryland that showed that only 25 percent of Mobile residents adhered to the state’s stay-at-home order last week, and what that means for the new “safer-at-home” order.

“We all think this won’t impact us or our families,” Eichold said. “This is not true. … This virus will infect and cause illness to anybody.”

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Fauci calls on governors in states with surging cases to issue mask orders

As COVID-19 deaths in Alabama passed 1,000 on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci called on governors to issue face mask orders to slow the spread of the virus.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a video press conference with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

As COVID-19 deaths in Alabama passed 1,000 on Tuesday, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force called on governors to issue face mask orders to slow the spread of the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, when asked by APR whether he’d like to see governors in states with surging cases institute statewide orders to wear masks, said yes.

“I do believe a statewide mask order is important because there is a variability in people taking seriously or even understanding the benefit of masks,” Fauci said during a press conference, hosted by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama on Tuesday. “Masks make a difference. It is one of the primary fundamental tools we have.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on June 30 extended her “safer-at-home” order until July 31, but declined to institute any further mandates despite surging new cases and hospitalizations.

Fauci also said that social distancing and the closure of bars are important to communities looking to slow the spread.

“Fundamental things like masking, distancing, washing hands, closing bars — if you do that, I think it will be a giant step toward interfering with the spread in your community,” Fauci said.

At least 1,007 people have died statewide from COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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New daily COVID-19 cases in Alabama dipped below 900 for the first time in six days, but just barely, with 888 new cases on Tuesday. Thirty-one percent of the state’s total confirmed cases have come within the last two weeks.

Alabama’s hospitals on Monday were caring for more COVID-19 patients than at any time since the pandemic began.

UAB Hospital had 86 coronavirus patients on Monday, the highest the hospital had seen. Huntsville Hospital had 72 COVID-19 patients on Monday, and the surge in cases prompted the hospital to cancel elective surgeries and convert three surgical floors to COVID-19 care, according to AL.com.

At East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika there were 41 COVID-19 patients on Monday, which was the highest the hospital has seen in weeks and not far from the hospital’s peak of 54 patients on April 11.

The average age of those becoming infected with coronavirus has dropped by 15 years since the beginning of the pandemic, Fauci said, which has lowered the overall death rate due to the virus, as younger people usually fair better, but not if that young person has an underlying medical condition.

“We are now getting multiple examples of young people who are getting sick, getting hospitalized and some of them even requiring intensive care,” Fauci said, adding that even those young people who have coronavirus but are asymptomatic can spread the virus to others, who may be more compromised.

Fauci warned against pointing to the overall declining death rate and becoming lax about coronavirus, and said that “it’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death.”

“There’s so many other things that are very dangerous and bad about this virus. Don’t get yourself into false complacency,” Fauci said.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told APR on Monday that it may take several weeks to learn whether the increasing number of those hospitalized in Alabama will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths.

“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said Monday. “We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”

Asked about his thoughts on the state of the virus in Alabama, Fauci said that what’s alarming is the slope of the curve of new daily cases.

“When you see a slope that goes up like that you’ve got to be careful that you don’t get into what’s called an exponential phase, where every day it can even double, or more,” Fauci said. “You’re not there yet, so you have an opportunity, a window to get your arms around this, and to prevent it from getting worse.”

Speaking on what’s become the politicization of the wearing of face masks, Fauci said that politicization of any public health matter has negative consequences. President Donald Trump does not wear face masks in public, prompting concern from many that by doing so he’s suggesting to the public that masks aren’t needed. The issue is divided rather sharply along partisan lines.

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, two-thirds of voters, 67 percent, said Trump should wear a face mask when he is out in public, but while 90 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents say the president should wear a mask in public, just 38 percent of Republicans said the same.

“I mean, obviously today, it’s no secret to anybody who lives in the United States that we have a great deal of polarization in our country, unfortunately,” Fauci said. “We hope that changes, but there’s no place for that when you’re making public health recommendations, analysis of data, or any policies that are made. That will always be a detriment to do that.”

 

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Governor awards $18 million for COVID-19 testing in nursing homes

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday awarded $18.27 million of federal COVID-19 relief money to the Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation for coronavirus testing and surveillance in the state’s nursing homes.  The Coronavirus Relief Fund money is to be used to test and monitor both nursing home staff and residents, according to a press release from Ivey’s office Tuesday.

“During the pandemic, it is critical we take care of our seniors and most vulnerable residents,” Ivey said in a statement. “Some of our largest outbreaks of COVID-19 were within nursing homes, and we must do everything possible to contain the spread within their walls. Protecting these vital members of the community, as well as the dedicated staff who take care of them, is precisely the intent of the Coronavirus Relief Fund.”

The $18.27 million for testing in nursing homes comes from Alabama’s approximately $1.9 billion in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds.

“I am extremely grateful to Governor Kay Ivey and her administration for supporting the ongoing testing of residents and staff in our facilities,” said Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, in a statement. “This virus is not like anything we’ve ever seen and has hit our nursing homes and staff exceptionally hard. I am relieved to know we will have assistance to contain the spread of this virus and hopefully be able to eliminate it from our nursing homes.”

John Matson, communications director for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told APR by phone Tuesday that testing for COVID-19 has been a financial burden on nursing homes “and this will go a long way in helping cover that and relieve that strain that our members are experiencing.”

There’s already been a great deal of testing among staff and residents across Alabama’s nursing homes, and the federal aid will only increase that testing and ensure that the cost of future tests will be reimbursed, Matson said. The organization continues to work out details of a plan to implement the testing and surveillance, and once those plans are ready the association will reach out to all nursing homes statewide to communicate that information, he said.

The nonprofit Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation, is to provide a testing strategy and screening protocols and administer the federal aid, according to the release.

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There had been 1,794 confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents in Alabama nursing homes as of June 21, the latest data made available by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Of those cases, 336 residents have died, according to the federal agency.

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COVID-19 testing delays becoming a concern for nursing homes: survey

Fifty-six percent of nursing homes and assisted living communities report that lab processing was the top barrier for access to testing.

Brandon Moseley

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A woman is tested for an infection. (Stock photo)

A recent survey conducted by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living of its members shows that the amount of time it is taking labs to process COVID-19 tests of staff at nursing homes and assisted living communities is becoming a major concern for providers.

Fifty-six percent of nursing homes and assisted living communities report that lab processing was the top barrier for access to testing. This is the top issue now in access to testing, followed by the cost of the testing as the second major barrier.

Eighty-seven percent of nursing homes and assisted living communities report that obtaining test results back from the lab companies is taking two days or longer, and 63 percent of them report that it is taking two to four days — while nearly a quarter report getting the results in five days or more.

Studies Harvard Medical School and Brown University show that the level of infection in the community surrounding a nursing home is the top precursor to an outbreak at a facility, which can quickly turn deadly.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Alabama is continuing to rise. 14,705 Alabamians have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two weeks and the percentage of positive tests has nearly doubled since May to 14 percent.

As the number of cases in the communities surrounding our nursing homes soar, the threat of bringing the coronavirus into the nursing homes continues to rise. These new survey results on testing are very concerning. The longer the amount of time to process tests of nursing home and assisted living residents and staff the more delayed the response and the increased likelihood of spread within the facility.

“The amount of time it is taking to receive testing results is hurting the ability of long term facilities to fight the virus,” said Mark Parkinson, the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living. “Regular testing of nursing home and assisted living staff is a vital step in controlling the spread of COVID-19, but is not effective without obtaining timely test results. For nursing homes and assisted living communities to protect residents and staff, we need on-site testing with reliable and rapid results. With a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases among the general population, we are concerned labs will get overwhelmed and receiving results for long term care residents and staff will take even longer to obtain.”

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As of Monday, there have been 2,627 residents of Alabama long-term care facilities who have tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus. Additionally, 1,696 employees of Alabama’s long-term care facilities have tested positive for the virus.

The elderly are especially susceptible to poor outcomes from COVID-19. At least 770, or 78 percent, of the COVID-19 deaths in Alabama have been among persons aged 65 and over; 167, or 17 percent, of Alabama’s COVID-19 deaths have been among ages 50 to 64.

Just 43, or 4 percent, of the dead are aged 25 to 49. Only two of Alabama’s COVID-19 deaths have been between the ages of 24 and 5. Two Alabama children less than age 5 have died from COVID-19.

America remains in the grip of the coronavirus global pandemic. At least 50,588 Americans tested positive on Monday, including 925 Alabamians. 132,979 Americans, including 984 Alabamians, have died in the global pandemic that began in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China late in 2019.

Alabama remains under a Safer at Home order through July 31. Citizens are advised to wash hands frequently, don’t hug or shake hands with anyone, avoid close contact with the sick even in your home, wear a mask or cloth face covering when out in public, practice social distancing, avoid crowds, and stay home whenever possible.

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Madison County mask order goes into effect Tuesday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Madison County’s health officer issued a face mask order to slow the spread of COVID-19, which goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m. 

Madison County Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers, who also serves as the assistant state health officer, issued the order, which requires those over the age of 2 to wear masks in businesses or venues open to the public, while on public transportation, in outdoor areas open to the public where 10 or more people are gathered and where maintaining 6 feet of distance from others is not possible. 

“We need to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a statement. “Until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, wearing a face covering in public is a key measure we have available to prevent transmission of the virus.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle in a statement expressed support for the mask order. Madison County now joins Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile and Selma in requiring masks while in public. 

“This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent,” Battle said in the statement. “We need to take precautionary measures, such as wearing face covers, distancing 6 feet, and handwashing to provide a safe environment for our citizens.” ​​

Madison Mayor Paul Finley also noted the surging cases and said he supports the order. 

“Since day one, we as elected officials have said we would work to find the balance of personal versus economic health. While personal responsibility is still paramount, our dramatic rising numbers dictate this step be taken to continue to support all citizens’ safety,” Finley said in a statement. 

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Medical experts believe COVID-19 is most often spread when an infected person, with or without symptoms, talks, coughs or sneezes. Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Other exceptions to Madison County’s mask order include:

  • Persons while eating or drinking.
  • Patients in examination rooms of medical offices, dental offices, clinics or hospitals where their examination of the mouth or nasal area is necessary.
  • Customers receiving haircare services, temporary removal of face coverings when needed to provide haircare.
  • Occasions when wearing a face covering poses a significant mental or physical health, safety or security risk. These include worksite risks.
  • Indoor athletic facilities. Patrons are not required to wear face coverings while actively participating in permitted athletic activities, but employees in regular interaction with patrons are required to wear face coverings or masks.
  • Private clubs and gatherings not open to the public and where a consistent 6-foot distance between persons from different households is maintained.

“Although not mandated, face coverings are strongly recommended for congregants at worship services and for situations where people from different households are unable to or unlikely to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other,” the department said in a statement on the order.

This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent."

Parents must ensure children over 2 years old wear masks in public, and childcare establishments and schools are to develop their face covering policies and procedures, according to the department.

The order also mandates that businesses and venues open to the public provide a notice stating that face coverings are required inside, and signage is required at all public entrances. 

“Wearing a face covering can help keep family, co-workers, and community safe,” Harris said. “This is the simplest act of kindness you can take for yourself, your family and your community, especially for those who are at high risk of contracting the virus.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health advises these actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • Social distance by staying 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Stay home if you can; work remotely if possible
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering when around others
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Monitor your health

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