Mobile County is one of the only major counties in Alabama without a confirmed case of COVID-19, but public officials say that is almost certainly due to the lack of testing occurring locally.
At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the biggest challenge Mobile faces is the lack of COVID-19 tests and the equipment needed to administer them and he seemed to lay the responsibility for changing that at the feet of the Mobile County Health Department [MCHD].
“If you listen to the heads of hospitals, they’re trying to set up offsite locations so people can be tested but we can’t do that without the testing equipment, and that comes back to the Mobile County Board of Health,” Stimpson said. “We’ve got to get the tests in Mobile first then it’s up to the health department and health providers. We’re willing to set up places where people can be triaged, but my hope is [Mobile County Health Officer] Bernard Eichold understands he’s the point person and will make it happen.”
The comments directed at Eichold came only a few hours after he ordered all bars and restaurants in Mobile County to stop allowing on-premise consumption of food or drinks for the next week, following similar actions taken in counties where multiple cases have been reported.
Stimspon seemed to express some discontent with Eichold’s decision or at the very least how it was announced, telling reporters Wednesday that he was only notified by text as it was being announced. When asked if he agreed with the decision, Stimpson said it’s “not what I would have done.”
There were other signs that Stimpson and Eichold had disagreed on his decision to limit restaurants and bars to curbside service only. Reporters were initially told Eichold would be speaking at the press conference with Stimpson but he was apparently told his “services weren’t needed” when he arrived.
The decision to prohibit on-site consumption comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been growing in Alabama, but not in Mobile. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 51 confirmed cases across the state — including more than 20 in Jefferson County — but there were none in Mobile County.
Wednesday afternoon, Eichold called a press conference of his own to answer questions about the new restrictions, which he said will be in place for at least the next week to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 until federal resources can direct more testing kits and protective equipment to Mobile.
Eichold said he realized this would have impacts on locals in the service industry, but said the decision was made in consultation with local hospital administrators, state health officials and the officials in Jefferson County currently responding to what appears to be the state’s most significant outbreak.
“These rules are here to prevent any spread until we can get more testing and find out more information. We don’t want people to expose themselves unnecessarily and get sick. This is a highly contagious disease, and we’re not waiting to have a case,” Eichold said. “I’d rather be more proactive to prevent the spread of this illness. This will cause a little inconvenience to individuals for a short period of time, but until we get the testing and data, we cannot just charge forward and put people at risk.”
So far, there has been some testing at private clinics and hospitals in Mobile but those tests have only been given to patients meeting stringent criteria — like those who are at a higher risk for severe respiratory complications from COVID-19 and are already exhibiting symptoms.
Asked about the mayor’s comments on his role overseeing testing, Eichold said his staff has been ready to begin testing since Monday, but is still waiting on kits and protective equipment from the “Strategic National Stockpile” maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
State and local health officials said they expected to begin ramping up testing at publicly funded sites this week, but Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist and MCHD Director of Disease, said equipment ordered for Mobile and elsewhere in Alabama was then diverted by the Centers for Disease Control [CDC].
According to Murphree, those supplies were likely sent to an area that’s dealing with a large-scale outbreak but it has still delayed the start of significant testing efforts in Mobile County. Elsewhere in the state, open testing sites are starting to pop up but it’s unclear when Mobile could see something similar.
Eichold said he’s hopeful that supplies from FEMA will be in place so that more testing could begin in Mobile by the start of next week. Once that happens, he said officials would be able to better evaluate whether the conditions in Mobile are safe enough to open restaurants up for on-site dining again.
Even then, though, he said tests and supplies will still be limited because there is a shortage nationally.
“We have personal protective equipment for regular day-to-day operations that we do, but for a pandemic we have the strategic national stockpile that’s a federal asset when the president declares a national emergency,” Eichold said. “All of the impacted areas have access to these supplies, but this is an unusual situation because it’s a pandemic and is affecting every state in the country.”
Eichold said those who have risk factors for complications with COVID-19 or those showing worsening symptoms like fever, dry cough and shortness of breath should contact their normal healthcare providers over the phone first. In-person visits for screening are discouraged to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Alabama Department of Public Health has also launched a call center for those who think they may be infected with COVID-19. The toll-free number is 888-264-2256. In addition to that, MCHD has also set up a COVID-19 Information Line, which can be reached at 251-410-MCHD (6243).
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