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Local COVID-19 cases spike up; Jax Fest to be fireworks only

Coronavirus illustration

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows the structure of coronaviruses. The spikes around the surface of the virus are often described as looking like a crown, or "corona" when viewed with an electron microscope. A new form of coronavirus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.

Calhoun County saw a sharp spike in coronavirus infections Thursday, with 43 people getting positive test results in a single day, according to numbers released by the Alabama Department of Public Health Friday morning. 

The county now has 322 residents who've been infected with the virus since March, with five dead. More than a third of the county's infections — 121 of them — were discovered in the past two weeks, a sign that virus is beginning to spread rapidly here. 

Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency director Michael Barton said it's unclear whether the increase in local cases is truly a one-day spike or simply a "data dump" of tests from recent days that are just now being recorded. In past weeks, ADPH has occasionally seen backlogs in test results. 

Still, Barton said, it's clear that the rate of new infections is increasing.

“Even if you look at the rolling average of new cases, it's a substantial increase," he said.

Barton said that without more detail from ADPH, it's impossible to tell whether the spike in new cases is due to a single event. Jacksonville State University announced earlier this week that 26 students had been exposed to the virus at an off-campus event and were ordered to self-isolate. It's unclear whether any of the 26 have had a positive test for COVID-19.

County leaders in the past have asked the state to share more data about new cases they've identified, to help local officials better trace the virus. 

“We knew this time would come,” Barton said.

Four people are hospitalized with the virus at Regional Medical Center, RMC CEO Louis Bass said. He said hospital officials have been preparing for the possibility that hospitalizations will increase soon in the near future.

State data shows more than 800 hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide, a number that has risen steadily since the beginning of the pandemic. While officials in Jefferson and Montgomery counties in recent weeks have warned of strain on their hospital capacity, Bass said he has yet to hear requests to transfer patients from those counties to Anniston.

Bass said the hospital has recently seen increases interest in testing for COVID.

“More and more people are out. More and more people are interacting. And people aren’t wearing masks,” he said.

The state as a whole also saw its biggest-ever day-to-day increase, with 41,362 people diagnosed as of Friday morning. That includes more than 1,700 people diagnosed with the virus on Thursday alone. 

The statewide death toll from the virus stands at 983. 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Calhoun County seemed relatively untouched by COVID-19, with one of the lowest rates of infection in the state. Until recent weeks, the county typically reported only two or three new cases on the average day — far below the 43 reported on Thursday. 

State officials have fretted about the possibility of greater spread of the virus over the holiday weekend, as people travel to participate in Independence Day events. So far, though, the state has yet to impose any restrictions beyond the social distancing limits that were in place through June.

Local governments had already planned to scale down their Independence Day celebrations to guard against the spread of the virus. Jacksonville mayor Johnny Smith said Friday the musical acts planned for Jax Fest Friday night at Jacksonville High School's stadium have been canceled, though fireworks are still planned for 9 p.m. 

Smith said the decision to change the event was made Thursday.


Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.