By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said that Alabama has had no issues with testing capacity for the novel coronavirus and that 20 sites around the state are being considered for additional designated screening facilities.
At a news conference Monday with other state officials, Harris did not say yet where those screening sites will be placed because work on properly staffing and equipping them is still underway, but that he hopes to release information soon.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s latest Monday evening report, 29 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been confirmed in Alabama: 17 in Jefferson County, three each in Shelby and Tuscaloosa Counties, two in Montgomery County, and one each in Lee, Elmore, Baldwin and Limestone counties.
State Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Brian Hastings emphasized the seriousness of the situation, saying that all citizens play a vital role in stopping the spread of the disease.
“A mobilization of all Alabamians, all U.S. citizens to reduce and slow the transmissions of COVID-19 is required so it stays at or below the max capacity of our health care system,” Hastings said. “That is the fight we are in right now.”
He particularly stressed the need for younger Alabamians to take the situation more seriously and avoid behaviors that increase their likelihood for exposure. Though young, healthy people are less susceptible to death from the disease, they could still transmit an infection to a more vulnerable person or population.
“Respect this disease,” Hasting said. “The nature of this disease is what is causing our younger population to say they don’t fear COVID-19. And fear has no place here. But please, respect this disease.”
Harris also emphasized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing recommendations of refraining from any gatherings of more than 50 people and, when public interactions are unavoidable, maintaining at least six feet of separation other individuals.
“You do have the power to protect yourself and protect your family,” Harris said. “The normal social distancing is what you can do and it’s the most anyone can do.”
Those above the age of 65 or with existing health problems should avoid crowds altogether, Harris added, saying he recommended refraining from out of state travel especially in confined spaces with others like airplanes, trains or buses.
Restaurants and retail businesses are recommended to limit their patronage to about 50% of normal capacity and a six foot space between tables is also suggested. Other states like Illinois, New York and Ohio have ordered bars and restaurants to close public spaces altogether, but no such policy has been pursued yet in Alabama.
Harris said that grocery stores will remain open and there is no concern about running out of food.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are encouraged to implement their own visitation policies based on what they think will best protect their vulnerable persons.
Harris said no hospital has reported having issues with surge capacity and hospitals are updating him daily with information about bed capacity and number of ventilators in use.
“That’s always a concern when you’re dealing with a respiratory illness like this, so we’ll continue to monitor that,” Harris said.
Harris acknowledged the increased level of anxiety people may be feeling due to the ever-changing safety measures but urged citizens to pay attention to the social distancing guidelines and work together to stop the spread of the virus.
“If we all corporate then we’ll have a little bit of time where we’re inconvenienced and uncomfortable but I know that we’ll come out OK on the other side,” Harris said.
State EMA staff will be taking measures to protect their workforce like working remotely and splitting shifts to maintain the six-foot separation between workers.
Hasting also mentioned that as more people are working from home and telecommunication services are more utilized, the state needs to be aware of possible cybersecurity breaches.
“We are reducing our vulnerability to one virus, and increasing our vulnerability to another virus in the cyber realm,” Hastings said.
According to multiple media reports, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suffered a cyber attack on its computer system Sunday evening that was aimed at undermining the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The federal government is currently investigating the incident and hasn’t yet confirmed where the attack originated from. Reports say that no sensitive or private information was leaked.
The attack prompted the National Security Council to tweet a warning Sunday evening that rumors of a national quarantine were fake.
Hastings later told ADN that hospitals are aware of the “cyber landscape we operate in and are very capable to protect their health care networks and data.”
He also suggested that Alabamians should take precautions when increasing their internet activity due to social distancing and quarantine measures.
“Alabamians can do what we do at AEMA: be aware of the threat; train on cyber security risks; educate yourself and your family on cyber security; have anti-virus software; turn on automatic software updates; and back up your data often,” Hastings said.