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Alabama hospitals, schools react as COVID surges

While some public school systems are requiring masks, others are taking a wait-and-see approach as cases and hospitalizations increase statewide.

(STOCK)

As the more contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 surges schools and hospitals are taking varied measures to either protect from more spread, or wait and see what happens. 

East Alabama Health on Sunday announced that medical-grade masks are now required for staff and visitors at all of the health care provider’s locations “due to the Omicron variant being highly contagious and causing a sharp increase in cases and hospitalizations…” 

“Everyone entering East Alabama Medical Center, EAMC-Lanier and all offices and services related to East Alabama Health must now wear a well-fitted, medical-grade mask that snugly covers the nose and mouth. Masks will be available at all entrances for those who arrive with a cloth mask,” East Alabama Health said in a statement. 

East Alabama Health and UAB Hospital both have asked the public not to seek COVID tests in emergency rooms unless sick enough to require medical care. 

“There’s certainly a need for people who have COVID symptoms that are severe and may require hospitalization to come to the ED,” East Alabama Health spokesman John Atkinson said in a statement last week. “But we ask that people whose symptoms are mild to please seek testing at alternate locations so that patients in need of emergent care are seen without delay. When the Emergency Departments get clogged with non-emergent needs, it creates longer than necessary wait times for everyone.”

Alabama’s COVID hospitalizations reached 1,613 on Saturday.

Despite the Alabama Department of Public Health recommending all schools require masks for students and staff, many aren’t doing so, and are instead following varying individual policies. 

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“We still strongly support universal masking in all our K through 12 schools,” Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said last week. “We strongly urge parents to have their children vaccinated as soon as they possibly can.”

Alabama’s vaccination rate for school-age children remains low. Of those aged five to 11 in the state, 9.5 percent are vaccinated against COVID, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Among 12 to 17-year olds the percentage increases to 35.3 percent.

“Our best medical advice is for parents to vaccinate their age-eligible children in order to protect their children’s health and keep kids in school,” Alabama Department of Public Health’s district medical officer Dr. Wes Stubblefield said in a statement last week. 

Mobile County Schools last week went against the recommendation of the Mobile County Health Department to require masks in schools, CBS 42 reported. 

“As Health Officer of Mobile County, Alabama and regardless of vaccine status, I recommend ALL Schools in Mobile County, Alabama require everyone older than two years of age to wear a face mask that covers the nose and mouth while on the school campus, excepting essential nutritional activities,” Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard H. Eichold II wrote in a letter t the system on Monday, the news station reported. “This should remain in effect for the next three (3) weeks as we monitor the situation. These efforts will again help break the transmission of COVID.” 

Mobile County Schools Superintendent Chresal Threadgill in a letter to parents the following day said mask would be recommended but not required. 

Threadgill wrote that the system would “assess positive cases daily, and make further decisions as warranted,” WKRG 5 reported. 

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Hoover City Schools Superintendent Dee Fowler in a letter to parents Wednesday and obtained by APR said the system had 149 of more than 13,000 students test positive for COVID during the first week of the new semester, or 1.12 percent, and that the system’s policy is to require masks after two consecutive weeks with more than 1 percent of the student body out with COVID. 

“Our next reporting date will be January 12th. If that number is over 1%, then face coverings would be required on the 13th,” Fowler wrote, also noting that 3.3 percent of teachers and school staff was out with COVID and that “today we were only able to acquire a substitute for 60% of the absent adults.” 

One parent of a child at a Hoover City school who recently tested positive for COVID  told APR over the weekend they were “slack-jawed” after reading Fowler’s letter. The entire family is now quarantined because of the child testing positive. 

“He wants to wait until Jan 13th to impose a mask mandate. That is unbelievable in light of the surge in cases the past week,” the parent said. “Dr. Fowler is setting himself up for the worst-case scenario he wrote about.”

Still, other school systems took more aggressive action last week to slow COVID’s spread. Madison City, Talladega City, Troy City Chickasaw County and Pike County all announced those systems would require masks when schools reopened last week, AL.com reported

The varied responses from school systems come as new COVID cases in schools continue to increase, increasing from 750 new reported cases among students and staff the week of Dec. 16 to 2,940 last week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed last week that a new rule that shortens COVID-19 quarantine time to five days for some people does apply to students and staff at K-12 public schools. 

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“I’m obviously very concerned that we’re going to be in a situation in the next two to three weeks, by the end of January, that we have to close schools sporadically, not statewide, because they’re just not enough adults to keep the school working. That’s my biggest concern, State Superintendent Eric Mackey told AL.com last week.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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