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Top doctors plead for change in behavior as state sees record COVID-19 cases

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A week before the end of Alabama’s current “Safer at Home” order, the least restrictive of the public health mandates first rolled out in March, the state on Thursday saw the most troubling numbers yet in its battle against the coronavirus.

New cases topped 1,100 on Thursday, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported. That’s a new one-day high.

Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris attributes the increases to widespread community transmission, not particular events or locations. About 30% of the state’s total 32,753 confirmed cases COVID-19 have come in the last two weeks.

And while testing has increased, so has the percentage of positive tests being returned. That number hit a record this week as well at 10.9%.

“We’re continuing to see large numbers of non- [epidemiologically] linked  cases, that is cases in people who don’t know why they would have had an exposure,” Harris told Alabama Daily News. “In other words, they got exposed just sort of going through their normal, everyday activities and weren’t aware they are around someone who was sick.”

Another record Thursday: 693 COVID-19 patients are currently in Alabama hospitals, a number that’s been gradually increasing in recent weeks. There were 289 intensive care beds available statewide. That’s not the fewest that have been available, but close to it, Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told Alabama Daily News.

“It was absolutely a bad day,” Williams, a former state health officer, said.

Williamson said that looking at the increases in hospitalizations since Memorial Day, he’s concerned about next week’s Fourth of July holiday and festivities associated with it.

“I’m worried that with the Fourth, unless we see a massive behavior change by the middle of July, we could easily be hitting something more than 750 people, or worse, in the hospital.”

The current public health order, in place since May 22, expires July 3.  It encourages people to stay home and practice use good hygiene, requires restaurants and bars limit their occupancy to allow for social distancing and says retailers can only be at 50% capacity. 

Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to address the order sometime before it expires. But Harris said statewide orders are “a challenging environment.”

“Because there absolutely has to be support from local officials and support from communities for that or people just flaunt it, which is what we began to see somewhat with the previous shelter in place order,” Harris said about the previous “Stay at Home” order issued in early April.

“Most Alabamians obeyed that order, but there certainly were exceptions where people very quickly wanted to show that they weren’t going to follow those laws.”

Asked if county specific orders to address hotspots were possible in the future, Harris said they’re an option.

“At the same time, we don’t want to impose things if there’s an absolute refusal on the part of local people to support those,” he said. “And so we’re trying very hard to build consensus and let people understand what’s going on in their own counties.”

In rural Sumter County today, the county commission is planning a meeting where it will approve a resolution encouraging residents to wear masks. County commissions can’t legally mandate masks, but Commissioner Marcus Campbell said it’s important residents see elected officials united on safety measures.

“So many citizens aren’t taking the virus seriously,” Campbell, who has had two family members die of the virus, said. “We’re going to ask citizens to protect themselves and other citizens.”

Twelve Sumter County residents have died and 271 in the Black Belt county of about 12,400 have tested positive, according ADPH.

The county has also worked with emergency management and state offices to get enough masks to give one to every resident. 

“They won’t have an excuse, at least they’ll have a mask if they choose to wear it,” Campbell said. “We want them to take it seriously and ensure them that we’re trying to protect them.”

In Texas, where there’s a massive outbreak, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday halted elective surgeries in the state’s biggest counties and said he would “pause” its aggressive economic reopening statewide, the Associated Press reported.

Ivey’s office in recent weeks has emphasized the role of personal responsibility in stopping the spread of the virus.

Williamson said he’s not sure what would be “acceptable” in a new order in Alabama.

“What I would plead for is a change in people’s behavior with a realization that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something,” he said.

He’s pleading for people, if they need to be out, to wear masks, stay six feet apart, use hand sanitizer and wash their hands often.

Williamson said he’s convinced that if behaviors don’t change, Alabama won’t get to a second wave of cases because the state will never get out of the first wave.

“And when we get to August, we’re still going to have 600 people in the hospital, and we’re still going to be getting 500 to 600 new cases a day, and then we’re going to be bringing our children in congregate environments, which is simply going to exacerbate this and make it even worse.”

This morning, Harris will join State Superintendent Eric Mackey for an announcement on what upcoming K-12 school year will look like. Students ended their spring semesters sheltering at home.

Harris said he understands people have a lot of uncertainty about child care while they’re working or the possibility of sending their children to school in August.

“People are in a really difficult situation right now,” Harris said. “I think all the normal things that we used to do in life around school or day care or work are going to have to continue to some extent but we’re gonna have to find a way to do it more safely than we used to.”

And while testing has increased as the pandemic has gone on, Harris said more testing will be needed as universities and colleges return for their fall semesters.

Harris said he didn’t know if the numbers this week are the state’s COVID-19 peak. That will depend on people’s behavior.

“This is up to you to do the right thing and protect people in your community,” he said. “You know, if you don’t want to do it for yourself, please try to do it for those people you care about or just do for Alabama at large.”

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