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Coronavirus cases in Calhoun County more than doubled in past two weeks

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.

Updated 4:21 p.m. Tuesday, July 14

The number of coronavirus infections in Calhoun County has more than doubled in the past two weeks, according to state numbers released Tuesday, and Regional Medical Center is now seeing more — and sicker — patients in its coronavirus unit. 

Regional Medical Center’s chief executive Monday urged the Jacksonville City Council to consider an ordinance requiring masks to be worn in public to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and a majority of the council seemed open to the idea.

“This is worse than the first wave,” Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital, said Tuesday.  “But the energy is up and the staff is ready.”

Calhoun County had 577 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health. That includes 308 cases diagnosed in the past 14 days. 

There’s also a surge statewide, with the state reporting 56,441 cases of the illness Tuesday, up nearly 1,700 over the total reported Monday. The number of new infections reported daily continues to rise, and 1,136 Alabamians have been killed by the virus since the middle of March, according to the state’s official count. 

Coronavirus skeptics, including President Donald Trump, have often attributed the nationwide rise in cases to an increase in testing. That’s not the case in Alabama. The number of tests performed per week declined in July, but a greater percentage of those tests came back positive. 

Local officials have seen more concrete signs of an increase. Regional Medical Center CEO Louis Bass said Monday that more patients are showing up in the emergency room, “very sick” with coronavirus symptoms. He said these patients are unlike the worried well who’ve often shown up for pre-scheduled testing events in the past. 

Magadia, the infectious disease specialist, said Tuesday afternoon that 25 people were hospitalized with the illness, with six in intensive care and five of them on ventilators. With tests underway for patients who showed up in the ER Tuesday, Magadia said, he expected the number to rise to 27 or 28 by day’s end. 

Rey Vargas, the nurse manager in the COVID unit, said that the current surge in patients is different from the one the hospital experienced in March and April, the last time there were a couple of dozen people hospitalized with the virus. Then, most of the hospitalized patients turned out not to be positive for the virus. Now, all the patients in the unit are confirmed COVID-19 patients. 

“They’re really sick, too,” Vargas said. 

Magadia added that the staff “just need food.” Shifts in the coronavirus unit are 12 hours long, he said. While the hospital provides food, he said, donations of food from the public would lift the spirits of medical workers. An official at the RMC Foundation said that people who want to donate food can contact the foundation at foundation@rmccares.org or through mealtrain.com/kl35md.

Bass, the RMC CEO, was among those who went to Jacksonville’s City Council meeting Monday to ask the council to pass an ordinance requiring masks. 

“I think we’ve got to do something to try to curb it,” he said. The council created a committee to study the possibility of a mask ordinance. 

Six people in the county have died of the virus so far. The sixth death — known to local officials for more than a month — was added to the state’s official casualty count Tuesday. 

Calhoun County Management Agency Director Michael Barton said a patient diagnosed with COVID-19 died at home in rural Calhoun County May 30. Local officials discussed that death publicly nearly a month ago. Barton said that because that death was reported by the local coroner, and not by a hospital, it took longer for the report to work its way through the system. Coroners regularly report deaths to state health officials, but the watch for COVID deaths in hospitals is relatively new. 

“This is not a new death, but many people are going to have questions because the number went up today,” said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency. 

As far as local officials know, no one in Calhoun County has died of coronavirus since mid-June. 

Barton said the new COVID-19 numbers are a reminder that people can slow the spread of the virus by wearing masks. A pandemic, he said, is the one type of disaster in which anyone can affect the outcome. 

Barton said the county has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of social distancing. 

“We've practiced and we've prepared,” he said. “Now it's game time.”

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

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