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Alabama to seek new COVID-19 testing guidelines as cases rise to 196

Scott Harris presser March 23

Alabama Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris speaks during Monday's coronavirus briefing in Montgomery. 

Alabama health officials will issue new guidelines this week for testing potential coronavirus patients, state health officer Scott Harris said Monday.

"We're trying very hard to preserve our testing capacity for those who need it," Harris said in a broadcast press conference. 

Harris said testing for the illness should be limited to people who have symptoms and are in "high-risk" groups, such as health care workers or people who are already hospitalized. 

The state had 196 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus COVID-19 as of 4:30 p.m., according to health department numbers. Calhoun County also reported its second case Monday. 

Harris said Monday that those patients range in age from 2 to 97, with about 6 percent requiring hospitalization. There are no known deaths from the virus in Alabama.

Health care workers in recent weeks have fretted about a potential shortage of intensive care beds and ventilators if the state sees a severe outbreak of COVID-19, which causes respiratory distress. Harris said that there are no shortages of ventilators in the state yet though he said "some hospitals are nearing capacity."

"While we do not have a shortage at this time there are some facilities that do feel pressed," he said. Jefferson County has nearly half the known COVID-19 patients in the state.

As of Monday morning, 1,832 patients have been tested for coronavirus in the state, according to state numbers. Harris said Monday that the actual numbers could be higher. Doctors are required to report positive results to the health department, he said, but it's less clear whether labs are reporting negative results.

The seemingly slow pace of testing has dogged Alabama and other states in recent weeks. The state originally followed guidelines that allowed testing only for people with COVID-19 symptoms who'd been overseas or were in contact with known COVID-19 patients. Only a few dozen were tested. 

Earlier this month, state officials decided to allow doctors to refer people with symptoms of the disease for testing. Numbers of tested patients grew. But now hospitals are reporting shortages of testing supplies such as swabs, apparently due to higher demand. 

Harris said he trusted doctors to make proper recommendations but would send out the new guidelines to clarify that testing needs to go to those most in need of it.

While the Birmingham metro area has most of the cases — including 86 in Jefferson County and 22 in Shelby County — other large cities had smaller numbers. Notably Mobile County has two cases and Baldwin has three, despite Mobile being a port city. 

Harris said a relative lack of testing in Mobile is likely the cause of that difference. And he said counties "with the most screening ability" report more cases and that rural counties without hospitals likely have undiscovered cases. 

Some officials and business owners have bristled at health orders the state issued last week, banning gatherings of 25 people or more and prohibiting residents from serving food on premises. Since the orders were issued, restaurant owners have reported laying off workers and unemployment claims have skyrocketed. 

Harris said Monday that it's possible those health orders would continue beyond their original early April end date, if the spread of the disease hasn't been slowed.

He said he didn't know when the pandemic would peak in Alabama. 

"The answer is, it depends on what Alabamians do," he said. 

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