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Alabama’s health order expires Friday; officials still advise caution

No COVID-19 patients in Calhoun hospitals on Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, Calhoun County didn't have a single patient hospitalized for COVID-19, and local officials said there are only 11 coronavirus cases in the county that they still consider active.

Even so, health officials say Alabamians should be cautious about contagion even after the end of the state's public health order, which expires Firday. No replacement for the order had been announced as of Wednesday. 

"We need to let people know that they still need to be vigilant," said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

More than 12,000 Alabamians have been infected with COVID-19 since the virus was first identified in the state in March. Deaths from the virus in Alabama passed the 500 mark Wednesday, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The death toll, while grim, is far lower than many health officials feared months ago, when coronavirus first arrived in the U.S. Alabama, like most states, imposed sweeping restrictions in March, closing schools, much of the retail sector and sit-down services in restaurants.

State officials have loosened those restrictions in the past month, with obvious results. Parking lots at Oxford Commons are no longer empty on weekdays. On Noble Street in Anniston, there's a steady flow of both drivers and pedestrians. Masks are rare, but so are handshakes.

The last remaining state restrictions, rules that limit occupancy in stores and close nightclubs and other attractions, are set to expire at 5 p.m. Friday. That's also the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, typically a time for mini-vacations that set the tone for summer.

As of Wednesday afternoon, state officials had yet to announce whether they'd extend or amend the health order.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, said Wednesday that Ivey and state health officials “are closely reviewing all the information and data available, and will continue to keep Alabamians informed.”

The statewide health orders come from Alabama's public health board, a body composed of doctors, though they've typically been announced by Ivey.

The pressure to reopen is real. Around 472,000 Alabamians have filed initial claims for unemployment since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, according to figures released Monday by the Alabama Department of Labor. The department has yet to release an official unemployment rate, but that's around one-fifth of the 2.2 million who were in the labor force in mid-March.

Louis Bass, CEO of Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said he has no idea whether the state will extend the order, though he noted that in past speeches, Ivey said the reopening of the state would take place in phases. He said he expects the next phase would include opening of entertainment venues. 

Bass will be watching to see if the state loosens restrictions on visitors in hospitals as well. If state restrictions are lifted, he said, RMC will likely begin studying the question of whether to lift its own limits on hospital visitors. 

“I can guarantee you we will not go back to the situation we were in, where Mary has a baby and 25 members of the family show up to visit,” he said. 

The hospital saw a 50 percent drop in business after the first health order banning elective surgeries. The goal of the order was to free up resources in the event of a strong surge of coronavirus cases; it led to cuts in staff at many hospitals, including RMC.

Now that that part of the order is lifted, Bass said, the pace of elective procedures is picking up, though the hospital is still doing about 65 percent of its normal business.

There are still hot spots of disease transmission in the state, Dr. Rachael Lee, an epidemiologist at UAB, said in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

“We talked a lot about flattening the curve, and it looks like we've flattened it but it has not gone down,” Lee said. 

Lee said it's important for people to continue to wash hands regularly, wear masks and maintain social distancing — and she said it may be harder to keep that on everyone's minds once the public health orders expire.

Lee said she's still eating out only by takeout or pickup, even though restaurants can take some sit-down customers now. She said outdoor gatherings, typical for Memorial Day weekend, can be safe as long as people keep their distance.

“It's not the beaches that we're concerned about, it's everything afterwards,” she said. Crowds in hotels or at public restrooms remain a concern, she said.

Barton, the Calhoun County emergency official, said the county's results are a sign that public messaging about the dangers of the virus has worked.

“People in Calhoun County have done their part,” he said. “They've taken it seriously and I think it shows.”

Three people in the county have died of the virus. Barton noted that the county hasn't had a death from COVID-19 in a month. Only nine new cases have been identified in the county in the past seven days, he said.

Still, the county's good news comes with caveats. Take the 11 "active" cases of the virus. Alabama doesn't track how many people are recovered from coronavirus, he said, largely because the state doesn't do rigorous contact tracing. The county considers COVID-19 cases "inactive" after the patient has been under quarantine for two weeks. The recovery time for many patients, Barton acknowledged, is longer than that. 

Barton also noted that local hospitals aren't likely to stay completely free of new coronavirus patients for long.  And there are concerns on the horizon, he said. Montgomery is “getting pounded” with new cases, he said. 

The holiday weekend could get people back on the road, Barton said, with a chance of bringing new cases into the area. Even with some restrictions still in place, he said, local officials are seeing an increase in mobility that could increase risk of spreading the virus.

“Tomorrow, it could all change," he said. "One contagious person could spread it to a group, and you have a problem."

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