The Alabama Department of Public Health and Gov. Kay Ivey announced Friday the first “confirmed” case of COVID-19 in Alabama has been detected in a patient from Montgomery County.
State Health Officer Scott Harris said the patient is someone who had pre-existing health conditions who also traveled out of state to an area where community transmissions of COVID-19 had been reported. He declined to release any information about the patient, but said he or she is currently “medically stable.”
State health officials have been criticized in recent days after it was revealed very few tests for COVID-19 had been administered by ADPH statewide, but Harris has defended his staff saying additional training was needed and the criteria for who should be tested was only recently expanded.
“We have been accepting specimens at the state lab as fast as we can and testing them as fast as we can,” Harris said. “We announced that we were going to be opening up the testing criteria on Wednesday and there has been a larger number of tests performed since then. I would say that we have a dozen or so tests that are going to be run today, but that could wind up being higher.”
Speaking at a press conference in Montgomery, Harris gave the indication more confirmed cases are likely to pop up but said he has confidence in the work state officials and hospitals throughout Alabama have done over the past few weeks to plan and prepare for that eventuality.
“The state has a handle on this. This is exactly what we’ve expected and we’ve been preparing for this for several weeks,” Harris said. “It’s always difficult to thread the needle between doing something that alarms people and being prudent and making sure we’re covering all our bases. I could understand why people would be alarmed, but we have expected to find a case for some time. We’re not surprised.”
In a statement released by her office today, Gov. Ivey also encouraged residents not to panic.
“Alabamians are smart and savvy, and I know they will continue taking appropriate precautions to prevent the spread to themselves or others. We have taken a calm and collected approach in preparation for this first confirmed case, and we need to remember that calm and steady wins the race,” the statement reads. “Alabamians should not be fearful, but instead, use commonsense to watch out for themselves and others. We will remain engaged on the matter and continue prioritizing the health and wellbeing of all Alabamians.
Right now, officials with ADPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are still urging the majority of citizens to protect themselves and others by routinely washing their hands with soap and warm water, covering their coughs, avoiding large gatherings and staying home if they feel sick.
Currently, ADPH is working to retrace the people that may have come into contact with the first patient in Montgomery County so they can be tested. The state is also sorting out the logistics of setting up additional testing sites throughout the state — ideally in each county at some point, Harris said.
Those sites are being paid for, in part, by an emergency $5 million allocation the Alabama Legislature approved Thursday. At least some of an $8.3 billion federal allocation is expected to trickle down to Alabama as well, but Harris said state officials are still awaiting CDC guidance on how to utilize it.
“Much of [the state money] will be used for arranging screening centers around the state. We’re not exactly sure how many at this point, but somewhere in the 20-to-25 range is what we’re starting with,” Harris said. “We want to have screening centers as close to patients as possible. Many locations will be at or near hospitals, as many of them have volunteered. Additionally, there may be sites at county health departments, though as of right now, there is still no screening at county health departments.”
Harris said those who think they may have been exposed to the virus should first contact their primary care provider, who can determine whether they need to be tested and help coordinate that with state officials. He said those without health insurance should still try to contact a provider — possibly an urgent care center in their area — before reaching out to ADPH directly.
The confirmation of Alabama’s first COVID-19 comes after numerous major events with potentially large crowds are being preemptively canceled. Most major colleges have also moved on-campus courses online to dampen the potential spread of the virus. However, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said state officials don’t have any plans to shut down public schools at this time.
“When we talk about assemblies, we’re talking about events with 500 or more gathered in a tight space, and we don’t apply that to the school setting because students are separated in their classrooms,” Mackey said. “We have told schools that they should quickly work to cancel any events or assemblies where students, teachers or parents would be coming together in large numbers in a confined area.”
Locally, the Mobile County Public School System has continued to monitor the virus and take extra precautions to sanitize and clean surfaces within schools. Superintendent Chresal Threadgill did say in a statement earlier this week MCPSS was restricting all school-sponsored travel of students, faculty and staff members to any areas where the virus is active. At this point, that is nearly all 50 states.
Lagniappe will continue to have updates on the impacts of the coronavirus as they are made available.
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