As new cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 continue to surge in Jefferson County, the county’s health officer on Friday announced an order that will require people to wear masks while in public.
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, in a press briefing Friday, said the mask order for the public will be effective as of 5 p.m. on Monday.
All people over the age of 8 will be required to wear masks inside businesses that are open to the public and while taking public transportation, Wilson said.
Outdoor spaces are not covered by the mask order, except for when more than 10 people gather outside, or when a person cannot maintain six feet of distance from others.
Places of worship and schools aren’t included in the mask order either.
“They may use their own discretion,” Wilson said of churches. “However, face coverings are strongly recommended during worship service, especially while there’s congregation singing or speaking, or in situations where people are not able to maintain a safe distance from each other.”
Wilson said his order is to remain in effect until the county’s COVID-19 numbers warrant a change.
Wilson’s order essentially extends the scope of a separate mask ordinance in the city of Birmingham to now include communities outside the city.
The reopening of schools makes Wilson “a little nervous,” he said, but that local schools have been planning for how to do it safely, and that the education of children is important for the students’ health as well.
“We need ongoing discussions about that. It’s complicated, for sure,” Wilson said of schools and COVID-19.
Jefferson County saw 149 new cases on Friday, the largest single-day new case count recorded in the county, bringing the county’s total case count to 3,481.
Over the last week, Jefferson County added 690 cases, and if the trend continues the county could soon surpass the county with the most recorded cases, Montgomery County at 3,521.
Alabama’s 964 new cases on Friday was the third-highest daily count since the pandemic began, and came the day after the state recorded its highest daily new cases — with 1,129 recorded on Thursday.
Hospitalizations are up as well. On Thursday, there were 694 hospitalized COVID-19 patients across the state, the highest single-day of hospitalizations since the crisis began. The total dropped to 658 on Friday with fewer hospitals reporting data.
Dr. Michael Saag, an expert in infectious diseases and a professor and associate dean at UAB’s School of Medicine, said during the briefing that masks work, and that doing nothing will only lead to more pain and death.
“If we do nothing, the numbers will continue to go up. This virus is here — not going away,” Saag said.
Saag described COVID-19 as “one of the most infectious agents we’ve ever encountered” and called on the public to take it seriously and wear masks.
“This is a call out to our community to come together, to be patriots, to do the right thing, not only to protect ourselves, but to protect our family and our community,” he said.
Saag said there is a projection that shows that without action, there could be another 180,000 deaths in the U.S. by September, and 2,000 new deaths in Alabama in that time. If people wear masks Saag said that projection drops to 1,300 in the state and would save 700 lives.
“You and me, we have the ability right now to prevent 700 people from dying in the next couple of months,” Saag said. “If we do what I would call a patriotic duty to protect our community, to protect ourselves and our families.”
Saag said there are hotspots all across Alabama, and encouraged people to stay at home when at all possible, practice social distancing when you can’t stay home, and always wear masks in public.
“The cases that we’re going to see in the hospital, the cases we’re going to see in Montgomery County and every county, for that matter, two weeks from now, were transmitted yesterday,” Saag said.
“We’ve got a lot of work in front of us and we’ve got to work as a community,” Saag said.
Every hospital in the Birmingham area is being stressed due to an influx of COVID-19 patients, Saag said, and he predicts it will only get worse in the coming weeks.
The thought of not having enough space or equipment to care for all patients who need it keeps him up at night, Saag said.
“Please, please work with us. Help us to mitigate this epidemic,” Saag said.
Johnjalene Woods of Gadsden said during the press briefing that she lost her father, sister and nephew to COVID-19 in five days’ time. She survived the virus, but was hospitalized, as were numerous other members of her family, nine of whom tested positive for COVID-19.
“I wasn’t going to come, because I said people are not listening,” Woods said. “But I think God afforded me this opportunity. One more chance to warn, please wear your mask.”
Woods stopped talking during the press briefing, paused and seemed to choke back tears when she spoke about seeing people without masks in public.
“It’s insulting to me, and I try not to take it personal because everyone is doing what they want to do, but to lose three family members in five days…” Woods said.
The family buried those three loved ones while several of them were still COVID-19 positive.
“I just plead with you and everyone, just please wear your mask,’ Woods said.