In an emotional plea Friday, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris urged the public to wear masks, social distance and to get vaccinated, and said the state saw a “huge increase” in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children during the first week of school.
Two mobile morgues were sent to Mobile and Baldwin counties in the last couple of days to handle the increasing numbers of COVID-19 deaths, Harris said. Such equipment is usually used in mass casualty events.
“This is actually a situation that has happened in Alabama hospitals now. We have enough people in such numbers in these locations that there’s no room to put these bodies,” Harris said.
Harris pleaded with the public to take personal responsibility for their own behavior, and said the public needs to do what it takes “to not continue this situation.”
“I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna be able to do this,” Harris said, his voice straining as he became visibly emotional.
A 14-person federal medical team came to the South Baldwin Regional Medical Center on Aug. 20 to help the struggling hospital handle the increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients. An additional 20-person team from the U.S. Air Force is to arrive in Dothan this weekend to help there, Harris said.
Harris said an assessment team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is to soon arrive at Dale Medical Center in Dale County to determine what resources can be brought in to help there.
More Alabama school systems this week continue to reverse course and require masks after starting the school year with them optional, only to see larger numbers of infected students and staff, and more required to quarantine. There’s no statewide mask mandate for schools or for the public, and Gov. Kay Ivey has said she has no plans to once again enact such mandates.
During the week ending Aug. 21, there were 5,571 confirmed cases among Alabama’s children, which was a 700 percent increase from the same week last school year, Harris said.
“Many schools are struggling now with keeping the doors open and many are going virtual,” Harris said. “We really want to be able to keep kids in school for face-to-face instruction. It has to be done safely as well.”
Vaccinations for children 12 and up, teachers and staff are critical to keeping schools open, Harris said, but among those aged 12 to 17 in the state, just 29 percent are fully vaccinated.
“I would really call on parents in Alabama to please talk to your medical provider about vaccinating your 12 to 17 year old child. It’s crucial that we get those kids vaccinated. If nothing else, the numbers we’re seeing in school-age kids will convince you of the importance of doing that.”
“Universal masking by all people in schools, regardless of vaccination status, is also very important,” Harris said. “When masks are worn universally and when at least three feet of spacing is maintained, people who are exposed are not considered close contacts and those kids can remain in the classroom setting.”
Harris addressed the Alabama Department of Public Health’s guidance on how schools should be handling those infected and those deemed to be close contacts of the infected.
“A person who is infected with COVID obviously does not need to be in the classroom setting. People who are close contacts do not need to be in a classroom setting. Children who have COVID patients in their home, do not need to be coming to school if they’re considered a close contact, as they probably are. Kids who are close contacts in the school setting to another case in the school setting need to get out of the classroom setting,” Harris said.
“We have been told that somehow our guidance is confusing on this. Our guidance is not confusing,” Harris said. “Our guidance is crystal clear. We do not need cases or close contacts in the classroom setting, or we will continue to see these thousands of cases each week like we’ve seen during the past week.”
ADPH’s K-12 COVID-19 dashboard went live Friday morning, but only a third of the state’s school systems had reported those system’s COVID numbers. The department had said the dashboard wouldn’t go live again until mid-September. Harris on Friday explained that this first week of the dashboard would be a sort of trial run.
Alabama on Friday had 2,887 hospitalized with COVID-19, just 194 shy of the state’s record high hospitalizations, set on Jan. 11.
“We don’t normally have these kind of numbers. We have a net negative 40 ICU beds. That’s not normal. That’s never happened before,” Harris said.
“I don’t think there’s a really good outlook if the hospital numbers continue to increase. If you add even more patients on top of that, I don’t know how our if we’ll be able to handle that situation,” Harris said of staffing shortages in the state’s hard-hit hospitals.
The seven-day average of the percent of tests that were positive in Alabama for the week ending Thursday was 23.3 percent, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Public health experts say it should be at or below 5 percent or cases are going undetected.
Asked if he is having conversations with Gov. Kay Ivey about the need for a statewide mask mandate, or with State Superintendent Eric Mackey about the need for universal masking in schools, Harris said masks are a “very partisan issue” in Alabama.
Harris does have the legal authority to mandate masks statewide on his own, but he explained Friday’s that there’s little political support for such measures.
“Official after official from around the state has made it clear that they want those decisions to be made locally. The governor has been very clear there’s not going to be a statewide mass mandate,” Harris said.
“We talk about those things all the time with Department of Education, and with the governor’s office, about what our options are. What we feel like is within our ability to do. Ultimately, school boards also have the ability to do that, and many of them, probably more than half of them, have done that,” Harris said of local mask mandates.
Harris said such orders can create “a lot of anger” but that ADPH has been clear about the department’s guidance on masking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous medical associations all recommend universal masking in schools.
“Universal masking is how we keep people from dying. It’s how we keep kids from getting infected. It’s how we keep our schools open. I don’t know how to be more clear about that,” Harris said.
“Ultimately, if we don’t have enough people vaccinated, this will never go away. Please do your part,” Harris said.