By Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
The number of local deaths and hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 have been trending downward, but public health officials remain concerned with the rate of transmission occurring in the community.
Earlier this week Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD), attributed the reductions to outbreaks being contained at long-term care facilities like nursing homes, which have accounted for a disproportionate number of the area’s hospitalizations and deaths.
“I’m glad to report that both are going down,” Murphree said. “Our hospitalis have coped very well, and the [experimental drug] Remdesivir distributed by the federal government to treat those who are the most sick, we believe, is having a very positive effect. We have been seeing a steady reduction in the number of hospitalized patients and the number of hospitalized patients who have died.”
After several weeks with the most recorded cases in the state, Mobile County handed that unwanted moniker off to Montgomery County and has since fallen to third behind Jefferson County. Still, over the past two weeks, 528 new cases have been reported, many of them among younger patient populations.
It’s been weeks since Memorial Day events and large protests raised concerns about the possibility of major spikes in new COVID-19 cases, but while those appear to have never materialized, new cases have not been going down consistently, even as the average number of daily tests have.
According to MCHD, the peak of testing in Mobile County was in late May, with the record for weekly tests performed set at 5,367 between May 24 and May 31. Of those, 463 (8.6 percent) were positive. Yet, of the 3,169 tests performed last week, the 339 positives accounted for 10.7 percent of the total.
“We see a lot of people out and about carrying on with their lives as if COVID-19 is gone, but we are very much still in the throws of this pandemic, and we are still seeing its impacts in Mobile County,” Murphree said. “The age range in our most recent cases is much younger, and while they have less severe complications, they also appear to be responsible for much of the community transmission.”
During his most recent address on the subject, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson seemed to echo similar concerns, observing that after more restrictive state health restrictions were rolled back, many residents seemed to move directly into summer and “dropped [their] guard” when it comes to COVID-19.
He said Mobile continues to have ample testing capacity and hospital resources, but with Gov. Kay Ivey’s most recent health order set to be renewed or rolled back in early July, Stimpson believes returning to normal will take longer if people don’t take “personal responsibility” for their hygiene and health now.
He echoed what has been the mantra of public officials for months, urging citizens to wash their hands often, stay home if they’re sick and wear a face covering in public when they can.
“[A local restaurant owner] asked me, ‘When do you think we’ll be able to really open up?’ And my comment to him was, ‘I don’t know.’ When you look across the state of Alabama, with the numbers going back up, the governor won’t have any confidence in releasing anything that hasn’t [already] been released,” Stimpson said. “That restaurateur is one of tens of thousands of people who really want to open back up, but we won’t be able to do that until we start doing a few things differently.”
Across the bay, Baldwin County has remained relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Out of a total of 12,312 tests administered, only 435 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. Nine people in Baldwin County have died.
Although it’s the seventh largest of the state’s 67 counties by population, Baldwin has the fourth-lowest infection rate — just 194.9 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).
Still, reported cases have spiked there since social distancing measures were eased in late April, and the daily moving averages are higher now than they’ve ever been. In fact, nearly a quarter of all reported cases in Baldwin County — 104 — have been confirmed just in the past two weeks.
ADPH Assistant Administrator Suzanne Terrell said the agency could not explain the anomaly of low total cases, but would like to dispel rumors testing is not being provided or positive cases in Baldwin County are being reported in other counties.
Terrell did admit many Baldwin citizens have driven to Mobile County for testing, because MCHD allows anyone who wants to be tested to be tested. ADPH, on the other hand, follows the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide tests only for patients showing certain symptoms or meeting certain conditions.
“If someone from Baldwin drives over to Mobile to be tested, even though they’re being tested in Mobile, their test results still show them as a positive in Baldwin,” she explained. “Whatever county they reside in is where those tests are counted.”
Terrell also said the county and the state are coordinating with tourism officials and destinations to promote social distancing and awareness, and few complaints have been filed. Tourism officials reported nearly 100 percent occupancy rates of rental units over the Memorial Day weekend, and visitorship remains equal to historic summer levels.
“We’ve pushed the message out through social media with the help of the [Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency] and [Baldwin County Commission],” she said. “I’ve been down in that area and I’ve seen the signs hanging in elevators and being handed out as people check in to hotels. Some choose to go by it and some do not, but we have worked to get the message out there.”
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