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Coronavirus hits home: Schools, police affected as local cases rise

Ohatchee testing

Karen Cobb goes over some instructions before giving a driver in Ohatchee Wednesday a coronavirus test. A group of nurses from the Calhoun County Health Department conducted testing Wednesday morning at Town Hall. 

Twenty-four people were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Calhoun County over the weekend, bringing the total count to 261 as the virus begins to spread as fast locally as it did before the state's stay-home order. 

"This is an indicator of a much higher level of community spread than we have had so far," said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency. 

Coronavirus has killed 905 people in Alabama, five in Calhoun County, since mid-March, according to numbers released by the Alabama Department of Public Health. As of Monday morning, 36,682 people in the state had been diagnosed with the virus — more than 10,000 of them in just the past two weeks. Health officials have generally attributed those numbers to increased social contact after the state eased many of its coronavirus-related restrictions at the beginning of June. 

Until recently, Calhoun County seemed relatively untouched by the virus, with one of the lowest per-capita infection rates in the state. It's clear that's now changing. Sixty-six people have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks, a faster spread than the county has recorded, even in early weeks when no social distancing restrictions were in place. 

Despite the surge, only three people are now hospitalized with the virus at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, hospital CEO Louis Bass said. 

"I don't have an answer for you on that one," Bass said. "Maybe it's due to the virus spreading through a younger population."

Health officials have reported a growing percentage of confirmed cases in people of working age. While the virus can kill people at any age, it's generally considered a more serious health risk for older people. Most of the state's deaths from COVID-19 have been in patients 65 or older. 

The recent surge in the virus has become visible locally in other ways. Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge over the weekend reported that a police officer in Oxford has tested positive for the virus. A Calhoun County deputy tested positive last week, Sheriff Matthew Wade said in messages on social media. 

Jails and other institutional settings are potential hot spots for the virus, but Wade said last week that there have been no cases of the illness in the county jail. 

Saks High School and Oxford High School both put football workouts on hold in recent days after students tested positive for the virus. 

School administrators are also working to figure out how to safely reopen schools this fall, after state school officials announced Friday their plan to see all schools reopen for some sort of in-person instruction in the coming school year. 

Anniston City Schools superintendent Ray Hill said he's meeting with faculty and staff this week to work on a reopening plan he can present to the school board on July 16. 

School officials in Anniston had discussed opening school later than its original early August start date. Hill on Monday said it's possible the school system will open with as much as three weeks of online or at-home work. He said he was confident that at least the first week of class would be done at home. 

About half of Anniston parents, in a poll by the school system, said they'd prefer to keep their kids home next year. Hill said the system will offer that option and is working to provide every student with a laptop computer for that purpose. 

Other specifics have been harder to work out. Hill said the system may hold staggered classes, with students coming to school only on some days of the week, but that requires complex scheduling. Setting up classrooms for social distancing will be difficult, he said. 

"Some things we want to do, like provide shields on the desks, we can't do because it's so expensive," he said. 

Alabama's remaining state-ordered restrictions, mandating social distancing at businesses and public gatherings, are set to expire Friday, the beginning of the three-day Independence Day weekend. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has not yet announced whether those restrictions will be extended.

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