Alabama health official: Pay attention, coronavirus coming soon

Published 8:08 am Friday, March 13, 2020

Alabama’s state health officer cautioned Thursday that people should expect coronavirus cases in coming days in the state, and lawmakers approved additional money for coronavirus testing and response.

Alabama is one of the few states that has not had a confirmed case of the new coronavirus, but health officials cautioned that there are likely unidentified cases in the state.

The state lab has so far tested about 50 people, in addition to tests now being conducted by private laboratories, state health officials said.

“We fully expect in the coming days that we will find cases,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said. “We think people need to pay attention, be prepared.”

Alabama lamakers on Thursday lawmakers approved a $5 million supplemental appropriation for the Alabama Department of Public Health to fund coronavirus preparations.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said the funding should help provide centers where people can obtain a test if their doctor believes it is necessary. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the appropriation.

“That’s the key. You are not going to stop the spread of this disease ladies and gentleman, you have to slow it down to give the medical community time to deal with it,” Marsh told lawmakers.

The vote came on the same day that the Alabama Department of Public Health recommended that people avoid large public gatherings with more than 500 people — schools and workplaces not included.

Meanwhile, the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Troy University and other institutions announced a shift to online classes.

Harris said part of the state money will be used to establish 20 to 25 screening centers where people, upon a doctor’s recommendation, can obtain a test.

He said there will not be walk-in centers open to the public, but that could change at some point. He said there is no charge for tests performed by the health department.

Harris said he believed the state has plenty of testing capacity, but testing was initially limited to priority cases where people were considered most at risk.

He said testing criteria has been liberalized and the state will now test a person at a doctor’s recommendation.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said Thursday that he is worried about the low level of people being screened so far.

“I am extremely concerned about the lack of availability of testing for this both in Alabama and the country at large — especially it seems in Alabama. Until the tests are widely available and affordable, we won’t really know the extent of what we are dealing with here,” Jones told reporters Thursday.

Jones said it is false at this point to claim that everyone who wants a test can get one.

“That is just not the case,” Jones said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

More than 4,700 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the virus.

Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said the county department is recommending that public gatherings with more than 500 people be canceled until further notice as a “prudent step” to limit the spread.

Harris said that is the same recommendation being made statewide.
Alabama House Democrats on Thursday renewed their call for Medicaid expansion in the state, saying the state’s rural healthcare infrastructure has crumbled because of hospital closures as the state faces a pandemic.

“Medicaid expansion can not wait,” said Rep. Mary Moore, a Democratic representative from Birmingham.