Calhoun County recorded its fourth death from COVID-19 Wednesday, and a local emergency management leader said officials expect two more recent local deaths are likely attributable to the virus.
If true, then that would double the death toll in a county that, so far, has seen fewer infections than most in Alabama. Local officials say they’re worried about the increase in new cases locally and across the state in the past two weeks.
“We’re concerned about where we see ourselves heading,” said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
Barton held a Wednesday afternoon press conference to address the rise in infections in the county. Barton said the EMA is also planning to reconvene its “safe reopening” task force, a group that guided local businesses through the process of reopening after the restrictions of the April lockdown began to be lifted.
Statewide, the number of infections approached 27,000 Wednesday, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health. Reports of new cases have come in fits and starts — the state counted around 2,000 new cases over the weekend, but only 314 on Monday and 531 on Tuesday — though the 14-day average of new cases continues to rise.
The state has seen roughly 600 new cases per day in the past two weeks, according to ADPH numbers — roughly three times as many as the state was reporting daily when state officials imposed a lockdown to prevent spread of the virus in early April.
Most of the restrictions in that lockdown expired in late May, and new-case counts statewide have risen sharply in the past week.
“The timing of this is pretty perfect for when things started to open up at the end of May,” Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, division director of infectious diseases at UAB, said in a press conference Monday.
Calhoun County had 200 confirmed infections as of Monday morning, giving the county the fifth-lowest infection rate in the state. Before Wednesday’s reported death, the last deaths from COVID-19 here occurred in May. Most neighboring counties also have low infection rates — with the exception of Etowah, where more than 300 people had been infected as of Wednesday morning.
State and local officials last week acknowledged that they didn’t know for sure why Calhoun County had missed the kind of outbreaks seen in Montgomery, Mobile or Tuscaloosa — and they acknowledged that the area could easily see an outbreak at any time.
Most businesses and activities are no longer under state-ordered lockdown, though there are social-distancing rules in place for restaurants and stores until July 3. The state doesn’t require people to wear masks, though state health officials have recommended it, and mask use by the public seems to grow more uncommon by the day.
“I want to stress that this is a real and present danger we have to deal with,” Barton said.
Barton said the fourth recorded death was a patient who died at Regional Medical Center overnight. He said two other deaths were being investigated as likely COVID-19 deaths, and that at least one of them was a patient who died at home a few days after a positive test.
Dr. Raul Magadia, who works on the coronavirus unit at Regional Medical Center, said a patient in her 90s died at the hospital this week after testing positive for the virus.
He said another COVID-positive patient, in his 70s, died at home over the weekend after being discharged from RMC. He said the man, who had underlying conditions, had asked to be discharged to be near his wife who was ill with cancer but wasn’t infected with COVID-19. The couple died within hours of each other, Magadia said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Magadia said he’d heard of another patient, in his 40s, also dying at home in recent days, without being admitted to the hospital.
Barton said a majority of the people who’ve tested positive in the county in recent weeks have been between the ages of 25 and 49. That means they’re of working age and likely in the workforce, he said.
Asked whether local officials knew of specific workplaces tied to the spread of the virus, Barton said he didn’t have that information yet.
“When you look at the numbers, there is obviously some level of community spread,” he said.
County officials earlier this year applied for permission to comdict local contact-tracing at the local level, but the state turned down that request. Barton on Wednesday again urged ADPH to allow local tracing and to release more detailed data to counties.
Barton said the “safe-reopening” task force will likely look at ways to make currently operating workplaces safer — and to avoid shutdowns that could occur if there is an outbreak in a workplace. He said he didn’t see another state-ordered shutdown coming in the near future, “but if the workforce is disabled by COVID, workplaces will have to make a decision” about staying open.
Statewide, 784 people were dead from COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning.
Medicaid expansion would have helped, group says
Also on Wednesday morning, the nonprofit group Alabama Arise released a report on the status of Medicaid in the state — and argued that expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would have better prepared the state for the pandemic.
Jim Carnes, a spokesman for the group, said that areas with large numbers of uninsured people tend to also have high rates of chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. And those underlying conditions, he noted, have been tied to deaths from COVID-19.
“We're learning the hard way that unaddressed health problems have made some segments of our population more susceptible to COVID mortality,” Carnes said.
Carned said Medicaid expansion could help the state at the end of the pandemic as well, as a means of distributing a vaccine to people who now don’t have a doctor.
“When we get the vaccine, there's not just going to be a switch that says ‘OK, we're going back to normal,’” he said. “Distributing the vaccine and distributing it in an equitable way is going to be a challenge.”