MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Department of Public Health reported only 86 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, an abnormally low amount, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the anomaly wasn't due to a problem in the state’s reporting system.
During a Facebook live press briefing hosted by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Wednesday, Harris explained that because ADPH gets test results from various labs across the state and sometimes even outside the state, that can cause delays in results being received and reported.
The delays will from time to time show dips and spikes in the state’s daily COVID-19 numbers, like what was seen Wednesday.
“We all recognize that is just the nature of how it is to report data, which is why most of the decision we have made and the way we represent the data has to do with the rolling averages, the 3-day, 7-day and 14-day averages," Harris said. "We want to use those averages to kind of smooth out those hills and valleys in the data that we get."
The state's current average for new daily COVID-19 cases stands at 870, according to ADPH. The ADPH COVID-19 dashboard also reported 537 new probable cases on Wednesday, which Harris explained was because more people are using faster antigen tests as opposed to the genetic tests which can take longer to analyze and require a lab.
Harris explained that because of the way Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define antigen tests, it has to be classified as a “probable” case, but he believes that in almost all such cases the individual has contracted COVID-19.
“We still count them in our total, and rightfully so, but what it will tend to cause is more and more people use this antigen test like the ones being shipped to schools or shipped to nursing homes, that you’ll see a decrease in the number of PCR (genetic) results which give you confirmed cases in a higher number of probable cases,” Harris said.
A probable case does not mean they have less confidence in a diagnosis, Harris said, but is simply a term that epidemiologists use to count cases and make sure that each state is comparing case numbers in the same way.
“When someone says, 'How many cases do we have in Alabama?' the total number of confirmed and probable is the right answer, we consider those all to be cases,” Harris said.
Harris said he is happy with the state’s overall performance in testing and that each county has been meeting its testing goals for several months now.
The Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the first rapid COVID-19 test that does not require any special computer equipment and costs only $5.
Harris said he has heard of some states scheduled to receive shipments of these tests from the federal government as soon as the end of this week, but was unsure when they will arrive in Alabama. Once they do arrive, it will be up to Gov. Kay Ivey where and how they should be used.
Such tests produce a higher rate of false negatives than the genetic tests, Harris said, but that becomes less of a problem the more the test is repeatedly used in large populations.
Harris said the state is also currently working on the details of how, once a vaccine is available, it will be distributed. That includes decisions about who should be eligible to receive the first batch of vaccine given the limited supply there will likely be at the beginning.
The Associated Press on Wednesday reported the CDC has told states to prepare to distribute a vaccine by Nov. 1. Harris said many questions remain about the nature of the vaccine and how it will be distributed.
"There are a lot of questions about whether a vaccine is one shot or multiple shots, how often it will need to be given again, and how effective is the vaccine? Does it give you high levels of protection or variable levels like we sometimes see with flu shots?" Harris said.
"Do we vaccinate older people differently than younger people? There are a number of questions that haven't been answered that we are waiting to learn more about."
Jones made a personal plea for every Alabamian to keep heeding safety precautions as the Labor Day holiday approaches.
"My health is dependent on your health and your health is dependent on mine, so we’ve all got to act like it,” Jones said.
Harris echoed Jones with a harrowing statistic.
“If you’re a person who is 65 and older, there is about a one in 10 chance that you’re not going to survive,” Harris said. “That is a serious statistic that we all need to think about.”