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Alabama health officer: More testing doesn’t account for spike in cases

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks is not totally attributable to increased testing and that the Alabama Department of Public Health believes there is ongoing, widespread community transmission of the virus.

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” Harris said. “We know that ADPH and partners we work with have managed to increase the number of tests we’re doing throughout the state, but that doesn’t account for the case numbers that we’re seeing, or certainly doesn’t completely account for it.”

Harris said the state has identified a number of growing hotspots, including in Montgomery County, Tuscaloosa County and Walker County, where spikes in cases are not attributable to increased testing but rather outbreaks connected to businesses, nursing homes and widespread community transmission.

“We know that we continue to have community transmission going on in many parts of the state,” Harris said on a Facebook town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. “We certainly identified many hotspots. …Sometimes we understand the reasons. Sometimes we do not. But clearly there’s a lot of disease transmission still going on.”

Harris said the increased daily case counts — which are increasing faster than 46 other states — should serve as a reminder that social-distancing recommendations must be followed, people must wear masks when out in public and people should avoid large crowds, even if those actions are not mandated by the government.

“Now more than ever, now that people are out in public, this is the time when they really need to follow those rules, those guidelines,” Harris said. “We need people to stay six feet apart, or more, from folks who aren’t in their own household. When people are going out into public, and particularly in indoors, perhaps into businesses or in other places, where they’re mixing with other people, face coverings, mask of some kind, are imperative and absolutely everyone needs to do that.”

The state health officer, who leads Alabama’s Department of Public Health, said the state was very concerned by photos and videos of massive crowds not wearing masks on Alabama’s beaches and Gulf restaurants over Memorial Day weekend.

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“We did not like that at all,” Harris said. “I had conversations with local officials there about them and they certainly recognize and understand the dangers of that as well. They have done their best to use law enforcement to try to enforce that to the extent they can. But ultimately, we need the public to accept this. And to do this, we need the public to buy in and understand.”

Over the past two weeks, Alabama has confirmed an additional 5,080 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 16,181. About a third of the state’s cases have been confirmed in the two weeks since the state relaxed restrictions on bars and restaurants on May 11.

Seven- and 14-day rolling averages, used to smooth out daily variability in reporting, are higher than during any point in the outbreak, meaning more new cases per day are being confirmed than ever before.

There has been no comparable increase in testing. Alabama broke 200,000 total tests performed on Thursday. But over the past 14 days, about 4,004 tests per day have been performed, on average. Over the previous 14-day period, ending May 14, the average number of tests per day was roughly the same at 4,032.

Meanwhile, the percent of tests that are positive has been rising after dropping to as low as 3 percent on May 1, based on 7-day averages of increases in tests and cases. The same metric rose to 10 percent by Wednesday.

Over the last 14 days, at least 117 people have died from COVID-19. On Thursday, the number of deaths attributable to the virus rose to 590.

“Those numbers do sound like numbers, they’re statistics,” Harris said on another Facebook town hall with Sen. Doug Jones. “But it’s really important to remember that every one of those numbers is a person. They’re someone’s parent or child or brother or sister. And so we never want to lose sight of the fact that we are having Alabamians who are dying from COVID-19 disease.”

Harris said the rise in cases is worrisome, and the state expected some rise after lifting the state’s stay-at-home order and loosening restrictions on businesses and gatherings.

“We’re going to need people to be more careful than ever,” Harris said.

Harris repeatedly emphasized the importance of wearing masks when out in public and said maybe public health officials need to do more to emphasize the importance of masks.

“People feel like a mask just protects me, and if I’m not worried about getting sick, then why should I wear a mask?” Harris said. “But a mask is how you protect other people.”

A mask controls your own coughing or sneezing or other symptoms — or just transmitting it because you’re talking or yelling or spitting. Such precautions are important because at least a quarter of people and maybe as many as a third of people who are infected and can infect others won’t have any symptoms at all.

“So, it’s certainly possible that you can be infectious to other people and not even know it,” Harris said. “So that’s what a mask is for. A mask, in my mind, is good manners. A mask is how you show that you care about people in your family or in your community, particularly those people who are very vulnerable, or seniors or people with chronic health problems.”

Masks are also important even when not around vulnerable people because you could spread the virus to someone else, who then unwittingly could spread it to a nursing home or extended care facility.

In Tuscaloosa County, DCH Health System has seen the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 more than double over the course of a week, in part because of an outbreak at a long-term care facility in the county and in part because of community spread, Harris said.

Similar outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Elmore County, Butler County and a workplace in Walker County and Franklin County have contributed to rising numbers, Harris said.

“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said, “and yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out into the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them. There has to be transmission going on in the community for that to happen. We need to find a way to get people to take this seriously.”

Harris said the Department of Public Health is not aware of any particular origin for the rising cases in Montgomery County, however, and that officials believe the rise is largely due to widespread community transmission and in part due to increased testing.

But the increase in cases also accompanies a rise in the percent of tests that are positive in Montgomery County, despite increased testing there. There has been some controversy about Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed saying no ICU beds were available in the city, but Harris said he was “absolutely correct.”

“There were no ICU beds available,” Harris said. “We talked to the hospitals immediately upon learning about that. I think their response was that that’s correct. However, they do have some internal capacity, when they need to do it, to expand the space that they have available and take care of critically ill patients.”

In Montgomery, that has involved treating critically ill patients in emergency rooms and retrofitted ICU units, a Montgomery area doctor told APR earlier this week. But there remains a shortage of ICU beds.

“I think that the message that we want to be careful about putting out there is: clearly those hospitals have higher numbers, they have you know their normal beds filled, and yet the public sometimes hears that and thinks well if I have a heart attack, I don’t have a place to go or they’re going to turn me away if I show up because the hospital’s full, and that’s not the case,” Harris said. “And so we want people to understand they certainly still can continue to seek care, just as they always would for any kind of a problem. They should do that. They certainly shouldn’t try to sit at home if they’re concerned about a certain thing.”

But if numbers continue to rise, the situation could become a dire problem.

“If numbers go up, they can’t do that forever, and then we’ll have to have to make other arrangements,” Harris said.

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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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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For the first time, more than 1,000 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit another record high on Sunday. (Stock photo)

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit record highs Sunday and Monday, jumping over 900 on Sunday for the first time since the pandemic began, and then surging past 1,000 for the first time on Monday.*This story has been updated throughout at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 6 to include the latest figures.

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28 and more than 50 percent higher than two weeks ago. The seven-day average of that number was also at a new record high Monday.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told APR on Monday that 893, or 57 percent of the state’s supply of ventilators, were available Monday morning, while 309 of 1,669 ICU beds, or 18.5 percent, were available. 

Williamson said while those two indicators are encouraging, it may take several weeks to learn whether many of those hospitalized will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths. He said another possibility is that younger people are being admitted for COVID-19 but may not become sick enough to require more of the hospitals’ resources, and doctors are getting better at caring for coronavirus patients.

“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said. “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.” 

Williamson said that from the week beginning June 29 to the week starting July 5, the average number of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 140, rising from 658 hospitalizations to 798 hospitalizations on average during that time. He believes the number of confirmed cases will continue to spike after Fourth of July celebrations. 

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For six straight days, Alabama has added more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and on Monday the state recorded 925 new cases, and the 14-day average of new cases was also higher than it’s been since the pandemic began, at 1,025. 

While testing has increased in Alabama, so too has the percent of tests that are positive, a marker public health experts say shows that there still isn’t enough testing and many cases are going undetected. 

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.”

The 14-day average of percent positivity was 13.5 percent on Monday, and taking into account incomplete data on negative tests in April, which inflated the positivity percentage, the data Monday was at a record high. Public health experts say the number should be at or below five percent.

The seven-day and 14-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths both were at 11 on Monday, and the numbers have remained largely steady for most of May, June and July.

In the last week, there have been 79 COVID-19 deaths in the state. Since the pandemic began, there have been 984 deaths in Alabama attributed to the virus, and the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 23 more deaths are likely due to COVID-19.

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Alabama reports 1,750 new COVID-19 cases ahead of July 4th

The seven-day average of cases per day surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.

Brandon Moseley

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Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama in early March, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19.

Heading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Alabama is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than ever before as hospitalizations continue a worrisome surge and the state’s death toll rises.

Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama on March 30, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The state reported at least 1,758 positive cases on Friday alone, the most since the pandemic began. In the past seven days, 7,645 cases have been reported, the most of any seven-day period since the pandemic began.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases — used to smooth out daily variability and inconsistencies in case reporting — surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.

Ahead of the holiday, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging Alabamians to celebrate at home due to the coronavirus crisis.

On Friday, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced that another 22 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 just in the last 24 hours. That takes the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983. Of those, 96 died in the last week alone (June 27-July 3).

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A few simple steps can greatly reduce your chances of being exposed and exposing others to COVID-19. Everyone should practice good hygiene, cover coughs and sneezes, avoid touching your face and wash hands often. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even inside your home, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others not in your household.

The use of cloth face coverings or masks when in public can greatly reduce the risk of transmission, particularly if the infected individual wears a mask. Many people are contagious before they begin to show symptoms — or may never develop symptoms but are still able to infect others.

Alabama reported an additional 22 deaths Friday, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Of those, 96 died in the past seven days alone, or roughly 10 percent of the state’s total death toll. In the past 14 days, 171 people have died, or roughly 17 percent of the state’s death toll.

Even as the number of tests also increases — at least 430,000 have been tested — a larger percentage of tests are coming back positive compared to any other time period, according to the Department of Public Health and APR‘s tracking.

Roughly 15 percent of tests in the past week have been positive.

The large increases come as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday extended the current “safer-at-home” public health order, which was set to expire Friday, to July 31.

The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 is also at a new high, with at least 843 people hospitalized with the virus on July 2, the most since the pandemic began.

On Monday, in Jefferson County, where cases are increasing rapidly, residents were ordered to wear masks or cloth face coverings in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the city of Mobile also began mandating masks or face coverings. The cities of Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma have also implemented face covering orders.

Of the 7,645 cases confirmed in the last week, 1,321 — or roughly 17 percent — were reported in Jefferson County alone. Nearly 28 percent of Jefferson County’s 4,802 total cases have been reported in the last seven days. Since March, 152 people have died in Jefferson County.

A campaign rally for President Donald Trump that was planned for Mobile on July 11 has been canceled because of the rapidly worsening coronavirus situation there. Mobile County has had 633 newly diagnosed cases in the last week, or roughly 8 percent of the state’s cases this week. Mobile County has had a total of 3,904 cases and 134 deaths over the course of the pandemic.

Montgomery County reported 426 newly diagnosed cases in the last week. Overall Montgomery has had 3,947 total cases and 104 deaths thus far.

Tuscaloosa County has 393 new cases this week. The surging number of cases in Tuscaloosa and Lee Counties — where 276 tested positive this week — could potentially put the 2020 college football season in jeopardy. Tuscaloosa has had a total of 2,188 cases and 42 deaths, while Lee County has a total of 1,302 cases and 37 deaths.

Despite making it through several months with relatively moderate increases, Madison County is also experiencing a surge of new cases in recent weeks — with 407 cases in the last week alone. Madison has had 1,271 cases and seven deaths.

Many people are flocking to the beach for the Fourth of July holiday, where the coronavirus is also surging in Baldwin County with 328 new cases in the last seven days. Baldwin had been largely spared to this point with 828 cases in total and nine deaths. This week’s increase accounts for 40 percent of the county’s total case count.

Alabama is not alone in seeing surging case numbers. Forty of the 50 states reported rising coronavirus cases in the last week. On Thursday, 57,236 new cases were diagnosed and 687 Americans died. The U.S. death toll from the global pandemic has risen to 131,823.

Globally, there have been 11,092,229 cases diagnosed, though the real number is likely much higher. At least 526,450 people have died from COVID-19, and, with 208,860 new cases diagnosed on Thursday alone, there is no sign that this global pandemic will be over any time soon.

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Second Julia Tutwiler Prison worker dies after testing positive for COVID-19

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A second employee at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday. 

The worker recently tested positive for coronavirus and has since died, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release, which doesn’t note when exactly the person tested positive or passed away. 

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

ADOC last week announced the first death of a prison worker at Tutwiler, while an outbreak of COVID-19 at the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County resulted in the deaths of two men serving there.

As of Thursday there have been 10 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 30 cases among staff at Tutwiler prison. At Staton prison, there were 18 cases among inmates and 23 among workers. 

ADOC on Thursday also announced another worker at Tutwiler self-reported that they tested positive for COVID-19, as did a worker at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one at Limestone Correctional Facility. 

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Additionally, another inmate who was exposed at the infirmary at Staton prison, two and St. Clair Correctional Facility and two at Easterling Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus. 

Confirmed cases among staff continue to outpace cases among inmates, and that likely comes down to access to testing. ADOC doesn’t offer free testing for staff, but ask that any worker who tests positive outside of work self-report the test results to the department. Inmates must either be exhibiting symptoms and be tested at the request of an ADOC physician, or they are tested at local hospitals while being treated for other conditions, which is how the majority of confirmed cases among inmates have been identified. 

Even though confirmed cases among inmates — 75 as of Thursday — remains much lower than confirmed cases among staff — 171 as of Thursday — nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, while two workers have died after learning they were positive for the virus. 

Of the approximately 22,000 inmates in Alabama prisons, 413 have been tested since the start of the pandemic, according to ADOC’s statistics.

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