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Tuscaloosa mayor: “We have entered into a danger zone” as hospitalizations rise

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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While Montgomery County and the River Region of Central Alabama remain the top area of concern for state officials responding to COVID-19, Tuscaloosa County is showing signs of a worsening outbreak as cases and hospitalizations spike.

“We have entered into a danger zone,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in an interview. “And if we continue to see trends of doubling hospitalizations over the next week, then we probably enter into an area where Montgomery is currently at. The good news is that we’re handling this. The bad news will be if the trend continues to rise.”

Over the past thirteen days, the number of COVID-19 cases in Tuscaloosa County has more than doubled from 345 on May 17 to 699 as of Friday evening. During the early months of the pandemic, Tuscaloosa saw relatively stable case increases, a trend that broke about two weeks ago. According to The New York Times’s analysis of COVID-19 data, Tuscaloosa has one of the fastest-growing outbreaks in the country.

Testing has also increased in Tuscaloosa County, but the percent of tests that are positive in the county over the last seven days, on average, is about 10 percent, up from as low as 2 percent in early May.

Many of the new cases in Tuscaloosa have been connected through contact tracing to institutional settings, Maddox said, including nursing homes, the metro jail and the state’s Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatric Center, where at least two patients have died.

“Those are the main drivers in what we’re seeing,” Maddox said.

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But contact tracing has also found that, in at least one case, the virus entered a facility through an asymptomatic carrier, showing that community transmission of the virus is ongoing, in many cases unnoticed, and is affecting more vulnerable populations like those in long-term care facilities and jails.

“That to me is kind of getting into what the public needs to know,” Maddox said. “We have to continue to apply common sense. That means wearing a mask when going out in public, practicing social distancing and assuming that everyone that you come in contact with is a potential carrier.”

State Health Officer Scott Harris echoed that plea Thursday.

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“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said of counties with rising cases. “And yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out in the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them, presumably, and so 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 seriously these social-distancing guidelines.”

But hospitalizations — a more precise, though delayed, indicator — show an even more worrisome trend.

At DCH Health, the main hospital system in Tuscaloosa County, the number of COVID-19 positive inpatients more than doubled in a week’s time from 36 on May 22 to 83 as of Friday afternoon.

“In Tuscaloosa, we took early action, and it’s given us the ability to deal with the higher number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations,” Maddox said. “At this point, we are at the ability to manage what we’re facing.”

As of Friday, 74 of DCH Health’s ICUs are in use — including both COVID and non-COVID patients — which would exceed the hospital system’s typical ICU bed capacity had it not expanded its capacity.

Hospital officials, including those in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, have been clear to say that they are still able to treat additional patients, though the hospitals are under strain.

Twenty-two of the patients in ICUs are COVID-19 patients, according to the hospital system. Twelve of the patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 are on ventilators. But there remain 52 others who are hospitalized pending tests for COVID-19. Eleven of those are in ICUs, the hospital reported Friday afternoon.

In total, DCH Health System has 90 ICU beds available, after adding ICU bed capacity by retrofitting hospital rooms. Normally there are only 72 ICU rooms between DCH’s main hospital in Tuscaloosa and its smaller hospital in neighboring Northport. Eighteen hospital rooms were adapted for ICU use to increase capacity.

The number of COVID-positive patients in ICUs has also doubled from May 22. There are also more patients pending test results in ICUs in Tuscaloosa than on May 22.

Like many hospital systems in Alabama, DCH also serves surrounding counties without adequate health care infrastructure. Neighboring Greene and Hale counties — part of Alabama’s Black Belt region — have among the highest per capita case rates in Alabama at 1,147 cases per 100,000 people and 1,051 cases per 100,000 people, respectively.

Though the situation in Tuscaloosa County is not as immediately dire as in Montgomery, Maddox said he is concerned that Tuscaloosa could soon be in a situation similar to Montgomery and the River Region, where hospitals temporarily ran out of formal ICU beds.

As of Friday, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said about 4 percent of area hospitals’ ICU beds were available.

“I want to make sure I emphasize to you, while we do have a shortage of beds and we are reaching a dangerous capacity load in ICUs, there is room to treat people who are sick,” Reed said.

Meanwhile, case counts in Montgomery continue to rise.

“Unfortunately our numbers have not plateaued, but are significantly increasing,” Reed said, adding that “more testing does not mean that we should see patients in worse conditions with fewer ICU beds.”

Maddox urged all residents to abide by social-distancing recommendations and wear masks.

“The stage that we’re entering into now,” Maddox said, “it’s going to be more on the individual than ever before. By doing the smart things, they can protect themselves, they can protect their family members, they can protect their community, they can save jobs, and they can help us get out of this sooner rather than later. And that would be my message to everyone. Let’s continue to do the smart things. If we do that, we will reclaim our lives.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Health

Alabama has fourth highest rate of coronavirus cases

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Alabama has so far recorded at least 29,896 cases per million people, which amounts to 2.9 percent, nearly 3 percent, of the people in Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday reported that 818 more Alabamians have tested positive for the coronavirus. This takes our state up to 145,780 diagnosed cases. At least 61,232 Alabamians have recovered from the virus.

But 82,109 Alabamians have active coronavirus cases. This is the ninth-highest raw total in the nation, trailing only Florida, California, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Texas — all states with higher populations than Alabama.

Alabama’s high rate of infection is not due to the state doing more testing. ADPH announced 5,500 more tests on Monday, taking the state up to 1,059,517 total tests.

Alabama is 40th in the nation in coronavirus testing.

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Tests as a percentage of the state’s population is just 22.8 percent. Louisiana on the other hand has 47 percent — the fifth highest rate of testing in the nation. Even Mississippi, at 26.4 percent, is testing at a higher rate than Alabama and are 29th in testing. Florida is 37th.

On Monday, ADPH reported two more Alabamians have died from COVID-19, taking the state death toll to 2,439. Alabama is 21st in death rate from COVID-19 at almost .05 percent.

New Jersey has had the highest COVID-19 death rate at .18 percent of the population. At least 257 Alabamians have died in September, though, to this point, September deaths are trailing both August and July deaths. At least 602 Alabamians died from COVID-19 in August.

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Hospitalizations from COVID-19 are also down. 780 Alabamians were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, down to levels not seen since before the July 4 holiday. At least 1,613 Alabamians were in the hospital suffering from COVID-19 on Aug. 6.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s July 15 mask order is being credited with decreasing the number of coronavirus cases in the state, which had soared to a seven-day average of 1,921 cases per day on July 19. The current seven-day average is 780 cases per day but is little changed in the last ten days.

The mask order expires next month, but most observers expect the mask order to be continued into November.

High school football and the Labor Day holiday weekend did not lead to a surge in cases; however, public health authorities remain concerned that colder weather and the return of flu season could lead to another surge in cases.

President Donald Trump has expressed optimism that a coronavirus vaccine could be commercially available this fall. A number of public health officials, including the CDC director, have expressed skepticism of that optimistic appraisal.

At least 969,611 people have died from COVID-19 globally, including 204,506 Americans.

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Health

Study: Those with COVID twice as likely to have dined in restaurants

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten in restaurants, which builds upon known factors about how the disease is transmitted, experts say, but the study has limitations.

The study surveyed 314 adults in 10 states and found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at restaurants within the previous 14 days. Researchers found that there was no significant difference between those who tested both positive and negative and who said they had gone to gyms, coffee shops, used public transportation or had family gatherings.

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes.

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, told APR on Wednesday that the study lends evidence to what the medical community knows are potential risks for contracting COVID-19, which include being indoors and unmasked, but there are nuances to each of those activities that can either increase or decrease that risk.

The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, and infectious disease experts say being outdoors decreases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s also hard to know what policies are in place where these people were recruited from for this study,” Hidalgo said. “Whether they’re required to be masked or if there’s a decreased capacity in a restaurant.”

Monica Aswani, assistant professor at UAB’s School of Health Professions, said she would be cautious about interpreting the study through a causal lens.

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“People who are willing to dine in restaurants are also likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as not wearing masks. Since this is a survey, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the source of exposure was restaurants without contact tracing to supplement it,” Aswani said. “Likewise, respondents may have misreported their behaviors, given the sensitive nature of the questions. The authors note this as a limitation and highlight how participants were aware of their Covid-19 test results, which may have influenced how they responded.”

Aswani also noted that the questions about dining did not differentiate between indoor versus outdoor seating, “which represent different levels of risk to exposure.”

“Participants who visited a restaurant on at least one occasion, regardless of the frequency, are also considered similar. Consequently, in the two weeks before they felt ill, someone who dined on a restaurant patio once and someone who ate indoors at five different restaurants are indistinguishable in their data,” Aswani said.

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Hidalgo said that while there are clear limitations to the CDC’s study, the findings do back up what the medical community knows about the transmission of the disease.

“I would very much look at this from the big picture perspective, and say we know that indoor activities are an increased risk for COVID-19. This study lends evidence to that,” Hidalgo said.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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Health

CDC director: Vaccine won’t be available to general public until mid-2021

Eddie Burkhalter

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CDC director Robert Redfield (VIA CSPAN)

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during testimony Wednesday before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee said a vaccine won’t be widely available to the public until mid-2021. 

Wearing a mask is the most important public health tool we currently have in the fight against the deadly disease, he said.

“I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” CDC director Robert Redfield told lawmakers.

Asked during the hearing by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, when a vaccine will be ready “to administer to the public,” Redfield said that he believes there will be a vaccine that will initially be available some time between November and December. 

“But very limited supply, and it will have to be prioritized,” Redfield said. “If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to go back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.” 

Redfield said it will take time to expand vaccinations out from those who need them most direly to the larger public, and said there are about 80 million people in the U.S. who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk and need the vaccine first. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said there will likely be a vaccine available to the public possibly before the November election or even sooner. 

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When asked about Redfield’s statements that one won’t be available to the public until the summer or early fall of 2021, Trump said during a press conference Wednesday that Redfield was mistaken. 

“I think he made a mistake when he said that. It’s just incorrect information,” Trump said. “And I called him, and he didn’t tell me that. I think he got the message maybe confused. Maybe it was stated incorrectly. We’re ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced, and it could be announced in October. It could be announced a little bit after October.” 

Trump refuted the CDC head, and said the vaccine will be made available to the general public “immediately” once one is approved. Asked for Trump’s timelines as to when a vaccine will be ready to administer to the wider public, an official at the press conference seated near Trump said that will likely occur by the end of March. 

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The Trump administration on Aug. 14 announced that the McKesson Corporation would be the central distributor of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. The company distributed the H1N1 vaccine during the 2009-2010 pandemic. 

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine trials were put on hold worldwide on Sept. 6 after a volunteer in Britain experienced a serious health problem. The company’s vaccine trials resumed in the United Kingdom on Saturday.

The company in a statement said it was working with global health authorities to “be guided as to when other clinical trials can resume.” 

The drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Tuesday announced that those enrolled in the clinical trial for the company’s own COVID-19 vaccine were experiencing mild to moderate side effects, but that an independent monitoring committee has not yet recommended pausing the study.

There have been 2,392 COVID-19 deaths in Alabama since the pandemic began, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

At least 193,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.

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