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Alabama reports third day of record-setting COVID-19 numbers

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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Alabama’s COVID-19 case count continues to surge as the Department of Public Health on Saturday, for the third day in a row, reported more than 800 new cases of coronavirus.

The total number of coronavirus cases in Alabama since the pandemic began jumped to 24,221 on Saturday, an increase of 888 cases to the cumulative case count. The previous high was an increase of 859 cases on Friday and 848 new cases on Thursday.

The 7- and 14-day averages of case increases, used to smooth out daily inconsistencies and variability of case counts, are also at their highest levels since the pandemic began.

The Department of Public Health, which also tracks the number of cases per day, reports more than 1,040 new cases on Friday, the highest total since the pandemic began, and the first time more than 1,000 new cases have been reported in a single day.

[For an explanation of why our daily case counts differ somewhat from the state’s, see the FAQ on our data dashboard.]

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According to the state’s counts, the three highest daily totals have also been over the last three days.

At least 13,508 have been presumed to have recovered, according to the Department of Health, since March. More than 768 have died, and more than 620 remain hospitalized.

But some 6,269 cases of the virus have been reported in Alabama since June 1, which amounts to 26 percent of the state’s total confirmed case count.

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Since the state began lifting stay-at-home restrictions on April 30, the state has reported at least 17,153 new cases, which accounts for 71 percent of the state’s total case count since March.

Since reopening, the average daily increase in confirmed cases has risen 264 percent from 177 cases per day on April 30 to 645 cases per day by Saturday. Average tests per day, by contrast, increased only 35 percent.

Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the state’s “stay-at-home” order on April 30, replacing it with a “safer-at-home” order that loosened restrictions.

Since then, the state has twice more relaxed restrictions, allowing more businesses, churches and entertainment venues to reopen with social-distancing restrictions and sanitation guidelines.

Alabama has not implemented a statewide requirement to wear face-coverings while in public, but public health officials, the governor and infectious diseases experts highly recommend wearing a mask when leaving the home.

Hospitalizations also remain at record-high levels, according to the department of health. At least 647 people were in hospitals with a positive case of COVID-19 on Thursday, the highest total to date. Fewer hospitals report hospitalizations on Fridays and weekends, but the total Friday was still at least 622.

The Department of Public Health does not report the daily number of ICU beds or ventilators in use, nor does it report the percent capacity of the state’s hospitals. But hospitals across the state are seeing increasing hospitalizations, particularly in Montgomery, where hospitals face a shortage of ICU beds.

Montgomery County has accounted for nearly 15 percent of the state’s new cases over the past week, reporting 651 new cases since June 6. Mobile County, which has the largest number of cases in the state, has accounted for 6 percent of this week’s cases, and Jefferson County, the state’s most populous, has accounted for 10 percent of new cases this week.

The number of tests being performed in Alabama is also increasing, from about 5,000 tests per day, on average, on April 30 to 6,700 per day, on average, over the past week.

But the increase in new positive cases is not simply the function of more tests being performed, according to both state public health officials and infectious diseases experts at Alabama’s largest research medical center, UAB.

The percentage of tests that are positive remains high above the ideal level of 5 percent or below, and has been increasing over the past week. Having a percentage of tests that are positive above 5 percent suggests the state is still missing positive cases by not conducting enough tests.

The state’s current positivity percent, based on 7-day averages of test and case increase, is roughly 10 percent.

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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Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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Average daily coronavirus cases in Alabama reach new highs as hospitalizations surge

“It’s incredibly important right now to maintain your bubble, to wear your mask, maintain distancing and wash your hands,” UAB’s Dr. Kierstin Kennedy said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/ADPH DATA)

Alabama on Tuesday saw record-high seven and 14-day averages for new daily COVID-19 cases, and the second-highest number of new daily reported cases, following the record high set less than two weeks ago. 

The state added 2,785 cases Tuesday, less than 200 under the Nov. 13 record of 2,980. While the Alabama Department of Public Health on Oct. 23 reported 3,852 cases, 1,287 of those were older positive antigen tests conducted in June through October and submitted by a facility in Mobile, which skewed that day’s count higher. 

The state’s seven and 14-day averages for new daily cases were 2,288 and 2,164 respectively on Tuesday, and the average percentage of tests positive over the last two weeks was 22 percent — more than four times as high as public health experts say it needs to be to guarantee cases aren’t going undetected. 

Coronavirus hospitalizations in Alabama on Tuesday reached 1,428. That’s as high as they’ve been since Aug. 11. Huntsville Hospital was treating a record 270 coronavirus patients on Tuesday. 

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Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, told reporters Monday that hospitals are seeing much higher numbers both because of the influx of COVID-19 patients and non-coronavirus patients. 

“We are definitely seeing the highest numbers that I’ve taken care of in my almost 10 years of being a hospitalist here,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy and other medical professionals in recent days have urged the public to take precautions during Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays or risk spreading the disease further by infecting themselves or loved ones. 

Dr. Racheal Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, said Monday that Alabama’s positivity rate is so high that if 15 people gather there is between a 30 and 50 percent chance that one in the group has COVID-19 and could be without symptoms. 

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“If we think about that, 15 doesn’t sound like a lot of people, and that may be a small gathering for some, but we really need to remind ourselves that a lot of people are asymptomatic before they’re symptomatic,” Lee said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health suggests that to cut disease transmission over Thanksgiving hold small dinners with only those living in your own household, have virtual dinners with those outside of your household and shop online rather than in person for Black Friday deals. 

“What I have heard is that we should expect some of the highest numbers actually in the third week of January, because of all of this commingling and intermingling of families,” Kennedy said.  “It’s incredibly important right now to maintain your bubble, to wear your mask, maintain distancing and wash your hands.”

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Last Conversations: Aunt Cheryl

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.”

Kristen Bolden

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Photos of Kristen Bolden and her Aunt Cheryl. (CONTRIBUTED)

“Everyone needs help from time to time.” That was the last text my Aunt Cheryl sent to me on Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 9:36 a.m. She sent a few others over the next week or so to our various group texts, but that was her last message to me personally. It was in reference to me arguing over my grandparents insisting on helping me pay for a new car after my old one had been totaled the week before. I couldn’t let them do that, but as she was told, I helped my grandparents out a lot, and they wanted to help me too. 

She didn’t know then — just like I didn’t know then — that a little over a month later, she would die in a hospital in Shelby County after contracting COVID-19. She didn’t know that her simple message to just accept help from my family would push me to actually seek professional help a few months later and sign up for therapy again.

My aunt was a bright and funny person. The joke was that my mom had her sister’s kids on accident. My aunt and I were a lot alike. She called me her travel buddy and would take me to New York with her. Once we were lucky enough to stand next to a group of German firefighters while watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Our group pictures are some of my favorites, and the moment became one of her favorites to share. She sent me and a friend to New Zealand one year. For our last big trip, she took me to Gatlinburg for the first time and stood by ready to drive our group back to the cabin after an impromptu moonshine tasting. While she didn’t like her moonshine, she loved her Talladega County muscadine wine.

My aunt taught me the finer points of traveling and, honestly, about a lot of life things. Things my mom was probably ok with her teaching me — like how to use humor to be charming or having another good model for being a hard worker. There were also things my mom was probably not ok with her teaching me — like driving fast down a winding Highway 78 from Leeds to Prescott or how to say “I know” every time someone would tell me how cute I was as a kid. (It’s a thing I still accidentally do at nearly 31. Thanks, Aunt C.)

Ever the dog lover, there were five running around her house at one point. “That’s what I want,” I would think to myself. “Dogs everywhere. Some land. And next to my grandparents.”

The house with all the dogs is where she lived with her then-husband after she returned to Alabama. They moved there just as I was about to graduate high school in 2008. At that point, I knew we had a relationship when I was very young, then she moved around the States a lot, and we didn’t see much of her. The places I can most remember her are in Arizona (we visited her in Tucson and fed a squirrel at the Grand Canyon), Seattle (where she met Harrison Ford), Alaska (where she lived near a glacier) and Minneapolis (where it’s just real dang cold). When she moved back, that’s when our relationship really took off. 

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I went to the University of Alabama, her favorite and my rival. Luckily, it didn’t cause too many issues as Alabama has a very good football team and Auburn has a pretty good football team. One time my car broke down, so she and my mom drove down to Tuscaloosa from Pell City so I could use her car for a few days. I’d end up driving her old green Suzuki a lot over the next few years. 

When I moved for my first job in the summer of 2014, she and my grandmother helped me pack the Penske and drive north to Peoria, Illinois. I wasn’t prepared in any way, shape or form for said move, but she got me there regardless. When I moved back to Alabama eight months later for my second job, yep, you guessed it: She rolled up in the Jeep with my grandparents in tow, ready to move me back.

Over the next four years, we saw each other regularly. She got me in touch with a family friend whose house I was able to rent, just two or three minutes from my grandparents. My Aunt Cheryl helped me set up the place where I’d live, sleep, eat, cry, binge watch TV, play with my dog and jokingly make cereal as my potluck dish for any get-togethers we’d have. I was pretty hopeless in the kitchen at the time.

Holidays felt like my childhood days again, with everyone at my grandparents’ house, laughing, eating and opening presents, being generally loud and joyful. I worry about the holidays feeling empty this year and perhaps every year from now on.

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In December 2017, I was able to travel to New York City with her again. This time, I’d be a witness to her wedding in Central Park. She married her last (and best) husband John just outside of the Bethesda Fountain. It snowed the day before (also my 28th birthday) and was perfect for pictures. John’s younger daughter Tiffany was also a witness. I imagine we both cherish the photos from that day differently now. 

John and my aunt were fun to watch together. They laughed a lot, smiled all the time, in turn making everyone else happy. I think that was her goal in life. They had a lovely little place on Logan Martin we’d go visit every now and then. They’d take my grandparents fishing on the boat while I tanned and read books on the dock. I know being there full-time was actually her goal in life.

I moved to Boise, Idaho, for a new job in March 2019. It was pouring rain, but she and John and our friend were there to help me pack up, clean up and get on the road. By this point, she told me she was too old to move me again and drag all my stuff around the country, but she’d help me get started. Driving away to a new place without her or anyone of my family members in sight was the strangest feeling. 

She was an avid NASCAR fan, but one of her favorite stories to tell didn’t even involve the racetrack. For a time, she worked at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds where they often had drivers come in on Talladega race weekends and do autograph signings. One year, Tony Stewart — her absolute favorite — came in for a signing. I went with her, and as she liked to put it, he made small talk with me while haphazardly signing the picture for her without even looking up. She then further backed up this claim by sharing that on our dinner date at Guadalajara post-signing fiasco, our server handed her the receipt without even asking who was paying — another sign of me being a regular charmer.

I was happy to have her on my hype team, even if it wasn’t totally accurate. 

I scored four Talladega tickets and pit passes for the October 2017 race — mine and my mom’s driver’s last one. We said goodbye to Dale Jr. as my aunt and John walked around enjoying the sights and sounds. By this point, my aunt had moved on to Kyle Larson. I don’t remember where Junior or Kyle finished that race, but I remember having a good time seeing my loved ones enjoy the day.

When she passed, that’s the picture I changed my Facebook icon to in memory of that moment. 

My family members gathered together near the end of May to work on my grandparents’ floors. I Skyped in with them that day because they were all together, and I had nothing to do as my car had just been totaled a few days before. We laughed. We caught up. We cut up. It was the last time we were all “together.” Everyone had been taking precautions because of my grandparents’ ages and my aunt’s cancer.

Four days later, I pulled into my parking spot outside my duplex in my new car and got a text from my aunt. John had tested positive for COVID. She was supposed to quarantine away from him, but I feel like it was too late at that point. She was waiting to start treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in early March, followed by surgery a few weeks later. She told my mom and me she was going to be furious if she had to put it off because of COVID. 

My grandmother would also test positive. After a few weeks, she and John both recovered. Only a couple of days after my aunt texted us, she was running a fever and had body aches. She was on a BiPAP machine at Shelby Baptist in Alabaster. A day later, she was intubated. She’d spend three weeks on a ventilator, her condition going up and down every few days, with doctors and nurses and pulmonologists doing everything they could think of to save her.

My mom said she didn’t even look like herself because of all the IV fluid and illness, and we shouldn’t have to see it. I sometimes try to imagine it, but I can’t and don’t want to. 

The last time I saw her was December 2019 when I visited home for my birthday and Christmas. That’s how I want to remember her. With all of us and my grandmother’s giant Christmas tree. Laughing and catching up. Joking about how I probably have a line of people at my door, waiting to take me out on a date. 

She was taken off support and died at some point during the rain-delayed Talladega race on Monday, June 22. It’s so weird that the biggest personality in our family died during her favorite race at the biggest track in the NASCAR family. That’s a terrible analogy, but I think it would make her laugh.

When I posted my tribute on social media, the comments poured in from people she worked with all around the country, people she went to school with, people who knew her through others, dozens of comments talking about how shocking her death is. How funny she is. Her sweetness. Her sometimes brutal honesty. How they never expected this to happen to Cheryl. I would say “join the club,” but I don’t want them to go through this. Instead, I find comfort in their comments and that she was exactly who I thought she was — for better or for worse. I try to remember she was a tough lady who at one point drove an 18-wheeler. She could push through this, and so could I. 

After my mom first told our group chat how quickly my aunt’s condition was deteriorating, I asked if I should come home. Not a single person in our family would let it happen because it wasn’t safe to do so then, and five months later, it still isn’t safe. Instead, I would wait for daily updates around 9:30 a.m. while I was sitting at work. I’d get sick to my stomach after looking up at the clock to see it was nearly that time. I was 2,000 miles from home, unable to help, unable to do anything but sit at my desk before going home and lying in bed, hoping I would just go to sleep instead of staying awake and crying. I would “tweet thru the pain” as the kids say some nights, hoping someone would see it and know I was hurting. I was mostly doing fine living alone at that point, but from my aunt’s hospital admission to August, I’d never felt more alone in my entire life. 

I work in local television news so I’m used to working weird hours, spending holidays either alone or with fellow news orphans, and knowing I’m probably going to move at some point in the next few years. I’d already been terrified to move to Boise because I’m so used to worrying about my grandparents, but this was completely rattling. The stories I’d run in my newscasts about people being separated from family members or loved ones suffering from COVID, the stories I’d read online about people saying goodbye from miles and miles, even countries away from each other, were now about my life. 

Her service was held on Sunday, July 5, at Kilgroe Funeral Home in Leeds, the place next to the ever-changing restaurant on top of the hill I’d gone to to say goodbye to friends, family members and others I knew my entire life. Except this time, I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t give her a proper goodbye as she actually passed, and I couldn’t in the wake of her death. Instead, I walked my dog around the Boise State campus, stopping to cry on a bench or a set of stairs a couple of times when it all became too much. I didn’t care that I was in public. If someone had seen me and asked, I would’ve let them know what happened and told them to wear a mask. 

My aunt was cremated, another thing I still cannot wrap my head around. She and John’s dog Layla had to be put down earlier this year. Their ashes are now in his possession, something I’m grateful for as I know they’ll both be taken care of with love. 

I was able to go home the first week of October. I drove to Alabama from Idaho and back. I took every precaution. Nobody got sick. I was terrified for a month anyway.

It hurt so much to know I was there and I would see John, but I would not see her. The pain is apparent on everyone’s faces still, but there’s nothing to be done at this point. I spend time angry at people not taking measures to keep themselves or others safe, but I can’t stay angry forever and I’m mad about that too. 

I hate I can’t text her about a funny thing my dog did or that when I send a Christmas card, she won’t see it. If I do end up settling down, she won’t be there. Sometimes I think whoever I end up with might be lucky because they’ll skip her hazing, but I also know they would have loved her sense of humor. I hate that it’ll be the same way for my younger sister. I hate that my grandfather gets misty-eyed when he remembers her. I hate that my grandmother has to be so matter-of-fact about the loss of one of her children to accept it. I hate that my mother had to be the one to carry us all through it while losing her sister. 

In the end, I just miss my Aunt Cheryl. If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.

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“We’re not going to get a do-over:” Alabama health officer on Thanksgiving and COVID-19

There were 1,427 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday, the most since Aug. 11.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on Monday pleaded with the public to avoid gatherings over Thanksgiving as COVID-19 continues to surge in Alabama and hospitals statewide are filling with coronavirus patients. 

“We don’t want this to be the last ever Thanksgiving for someone in your family, like your parents or your grandparents,” Harris said during a press conference Monday. 

Harris said Alabama’s numbers aren’t headed in the right direction and more than 230,000 Alabamians — roughly 4 percent of the state’s population — have been infected by the coronavirus. 

“We are adding a couple of thousand new cases a day, at least, that we are aware,” Harris said. “This is a time for people to be vigilant. This is a time to be careful and to think about what you’re going to be doing.” 

Alabama added 1,574 new coronavirus cases on Monday, and the state’s 14-day average for new daily cases was at a record high 2,087. In the last two weeks, the state has added 29,223 cases, the most cases in any two week period since the pandemic arrived in Alabama in March.

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There were 1,427 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday. The last time so many were hospitalized in the state was on Aug. 11, during Alabama’s summer surge. 

Harris said that he and his wife will be staying home for Thanksgiving instead of having his family’s regular large, intergenerational gathering. What happens with Alabama’s COVID-19 numbers over Thanksgiving will impact what the state’s December holiday and Christmas season will look like, Harris said. 

“Are we gonna be here a month from now trying to have the same conversation? I really, really hope not,” Harris said. 

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Dr. Mary McIntyre, the Alabama Department of Public Health’s chief medical officer, said during the briefing that her home usually sees between 15 and 20 family members arriving for Thanksgiving. They’ve limited this year’s Thanksgiving to three additional people from out of their household, for a total of seven people, she said.

Everyone must wear masks and have temperatures checked at the door, she said. 

Everyone will be seated six feet from one another and a Zoom video conference will be set up for those family members who won’t be attending in person, McIntyre said. They’ll use disposable plates, cups and utensils and have the ability, weather permitting, to eat outdoors.

“If we want to live to see another Thanksgiving, and I do, that it may mean stepping back this Thanksgiving and really limiting the number of people, and some of the things that we do,” McIntyre said. “Now is not the time to get out to do Black Friday shopping.” 

Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a separate press briefing Monday echoed concern over the possibility of spikes following Thanksgiving and Christmas if the public doesn’t do what’s needed to keep themselves and others safe.

“We are very much worried about the potential spike in numbers. We’ve also seen some of our own staff getting sick,” Kennedy said. “And unfortunately that’s not been at work. It’s been because we are just like you. We’re tired. We’re lonely. We want to try to socialize, and some of us have let our guards down and, as a result, have gotten sick.”

Kennedy said while there’s is concern over future spikes following the upcoming holidays “there is a way for all of us to help prevent that from happening.”

Kennedy said when Gov. Kay Ivey first issued her statewide mask order and social distancing requirements, the public masked up, businesses enforced the orders, and coronavirus numbers improved.

“It didn’t get nearly as bad as we thought, and we are really hopeful that the community is going to come together and do that again for us,” Kennedy said. “Because it’s more than just not having enough space for the COVID patients. It’s also those patients who do not have COVID that have other conditions. They rely on us for routine care, and we want to make sure that we’re available to provide that.”

Kenedy said UAB has an incredible group of staff members, who’ve proven themselves to be quite resilient, but that “the group is tired.”

“We’ve been doing this every single day since March, and so as you can imagine, people are very tired. It’s very emotional, especially as we see younger patients getting sick with this and getting sick in ways that we weren’t expecting,” she said.

Harris again urged the public to make smart decisions that will help slow the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re not going to get a do-over on this,” Harris said. “This is a big national holiday, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and our numbers are worse than they have ever been during this entire response. Please be careful. Please be safe. And please try to take care of those people who are most vulnerable.”

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