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

Chip Brownlee

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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.

“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 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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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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Jones urges public to heed surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday pleaded with the public to take COVID-19 seriously, especially now, as reopening of schools and Fourth of July celebrations near. Meanwhile, the state continues to see record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations. 

Alabama on Thursday saw a fourth straight day for record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations — and a record number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, when taking into account data collection problems that inflated Monday’s total.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were being treated in Alabama hospitals for COVID-19, according to the state health department. That number is an increase of nearly 22 percent over this time last week, and a near 40 percent increase compared to the beginning of June.

At least “961 of our neighbors and family members have lost their lives to COVID-19, and we need to be cognizant of that as well, as those numbers continue to grow,” Jones said during a press briefing Thursday, also noting that over the last 14 days Alabama has seen 11,091 new cases of the virus, which is 28 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases. 

Jones said that while we’re testing more people in recent weeks, The Alabama Department of Public Health’s statistics show that a greater percentage of the tests are coming back positive.

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Based on a seven-day average, roughly 14 percent of the tests conducted in the state are now coming back positive. Public health experts believe that such a high percentage of positives is a sign that there continues to be community spread of the virus, and that there still isn’t enough testing being done. 

Jones said he’s concerned, too, about the timing of the surge in new cases, coming in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey lifted her more rigorous restrictions and after Memorial Day celebrations.  

“People did not seem to get the message about social distancing and wearing masks, and we are seeing these numbers increase and increase and increase,” Jones said. 

Jones noted the state’s long lines for people seeking help with their unemployment applications, some even camping out overnight to get that help, and said he’s written a letter to Senate leadership asking for federal funding to state departments of labor to better service those in need. 

The senator also discussed Oklahoma’s recent expansion of Medicaid, and said that the action made clear state leaders there understand that during the pandemic they needed to get all the help they can to their fellow citizens. 

“It is my hope that Alabama will also do likewise. We continue to see a rise in the number of people that could benefit from expanded Medicaid,” Jones said, adding that he’s still working to get another round of incentives to states to encourage expansion of Medicaid. 

Asked if there would be another round of stimulus checks sent to individuals, Jones said “maybe.” 

Jones said the next round of COVID-19 legislation is being drafted behind closed doors by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky, and that it’s uncertain whether more direct payments to individuals will be included in the final bills. 

“I’ve heard mixed messages coming out of the administration and Senator McConnell’s office,” Jones said, adding that he’s for the additional payments and thinks it will be needed going forward. 

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, speaking during the press conference, said the Montgomery City Council could take up at the next council meeting a measure that would place guidelines on businesses within the city to be held accountable for helping enforce the city’s mask ordinance for the public. 

In the absence of a statewide mask order, local governments have been instituting their own in recent weeks. Wearing masks, staying home when at all possible and maintaining social distancing when one can’t are the best ways to reduce spread of the virus, public health experts say.

Montgomery currently has a mask order in place, which carries the possibility of a $25 fine for individuals not following the order. 

Reed said at the next meeting, council members may deliberate on a measure to require businesses help ensure the public adheres to the mask order or face possible suspension of their business license “for a couple of weeks, so that is yet to be voted on, and we will look at that.” 

Reed said that the point of the city’s mask order isn’t to fine people, however, but to encourage them to wear masks and help save lives. He noted that Montgomery’s mask order has been followed by similar orders in Mobile and Selma, as local municipalities make independent decisions to protect their fellow citizens.

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Alabama’s COVID-19 surge is not slowing

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of patients in Alabama hospitals being treated for COVID-19 surged past 800 on Thursday, marking a fourth straight day of record-high hospitalizations as concerns grow over the possibility that hospitals could become stressed due to the influx of patients.*This story was updated throughout at 4 p.m. on July 2 to reflect updated hospitalization data for Thursday.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s data. That’s more than any point prior and an increase of more than 20 percent compared to this time last week — and an increase of 40 percent compared to the beginning of June.

The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases also reached a new high Thursday, as the state added 1,162 cases. On Monday, there were 1,718 cases, but because of delays in data collection, Monday’s numbers included figures from Saturday and Sunday.

The previous daily high was June 25, when the state saw an additional 1,129 cases.

The seven-day and 14-day rolling averages of daily cases both reached record highs this week. The seven-day average reached 981 Tuesday, a record, and remains high at 979. The 14-day average reached 843 Thursday for the first time. Rolling averages are used to smooth out daily inconsistencies and variability in case reporting.

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Additionally, the number of tests that are positive remains high. Taking into account incomplete data in April that inflated the numbers then, on Thursday the seven-day average of percent positivity was at 13.64, the third highest percentage since the start of the pandemic. The 14-day average of percent positivity on Thursday of 12.16 was the highest it’s been, taking into account the inflated April numbers. 

Public health officials and experts believe the percentage of tests that are positive should be at, or preferably below, 5 percent. Any higher, and the data suggests that the state is not performing enough tests and many cases are still being missed.

At least 81 deaths have been reported in the last seven days, bringing the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 961. In the last two weeks, 160 people have died from COVID-19.

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