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‘Game Time’

Experts say COVID-19 ‘second surge’ has reached Calhoun

Wellborn COVID 19 testing

Yet another mobile COVID-19 testing site, this one is at Wellborn High School. The beginning was at Wellborn Elementary School and ending with the actual testing at Wellborn High School parking lot. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

WELLBORN — Testing totals from drive-thru COVID-19 screenings at Walter Wellborn High were still being tallied at 2:30 p.m. Friday when lines finally cleared, more than two hours after the event officially ended. 

Temperatures crested just above 90 degrees around 10:30 a.m., baking the cracked asphalt in the school’s parking lot. Two lines of cars ran parallel along the school’s front lane, engines humming, climate controls taxed to their limit, wrapped back around the building, past the baseball field, beside the elementary school. Along those lanes were personnel taking information from drivers and passengers. 

Louis Bass, CEO of Regional Medical Center in Anniston, ran cold bottles of water from a command station in the parking lot to testers wearing masks, latex gloves and surgical gowns, stationed beneath green pop-up tents. People were swabbed for samples that will later tell them if they’ve caught the virus, which had infected a total of 456 people in Calhoun County as of Friday; 219 of those cases were identified in the last 14 days, according to an update from the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency. Five people have died after testing positive for the virus since March. 

Later that afternoon, Michael Barton, county EMA director, said that 310 people had been tested at the Wellborn site, 90 more than the county record of 220 set Wednesday at Weaver City Hall

During a live-streamed news conference at 11 a.m., Barton told county residents to change their mindset from preparation to participation. 

“While we have taken time over the last few months to be prepared, to train people, to educate the public,” Barton said, “it’s game time now.” 

Bass said that during the first round of cases at the hospital, RMC topped out at eight COVID-positive patients. There were 16 positives in the COVID-19 unit on Friday morning, he said, with another three under investigation, but likely to be admitted and put the total at 19. Of all those patients, three were on ventilators. The hospital’s first COVID unit has 22 beds, Bass said, and patients are being moved to make room for another unit. 

“I implore the people of Calhoun County to please wear a mask, separate and sanitize,” Bass said, referencing social distancing and hygiene habits. “Those are the three things we know we can do to help make a difference in handling this disease.” 

In total, five speakers addressed county residents. Each of them, including Dr. Almena Free, chief of staff at RMC, Jacksonville fire Chief Keith Kadle and Oxford fire Assistant Chief Ben Stewart, emphasized that wearing masks, maintaining social distance and sanitizing were the only chance of holding back the spread of the virus, which had dwindled two months ago to about six local cases appearing within a two-week span, Barton said. 

The demographics of COVID seem to be shifting in the county, too; the Wellborn testing site was arranged when members of the countywide task force saw a hotspot among young people growing in the community, which sits west of Anniston. Most positive cases had been in the range of people from 25 to 49 years old, Barton said, but young people, especially minors, are closing quickly on that lead. 

“They’re the second most-growing age group of people in Calhoun County right now,” Barton said. 

The increase is likely tied to the return to schools planned next month, as sports teams attempt to hold practices and teens start to attend gatherings. Barton said there didn’t appear to be any “COVID parties” — alleged gatherings in which teens attempt to purposely infect themselves with the virus — but that contact tracing amongst infected teens had indicated commonplace gatherings. 

Free said that RMC had recently admitted a 24-year-old who tested positive for the virus, who had attended a party and visited three restaurants in the area, all without a mask or maintaining distance. 

“This is not something to play with,” Free said. “We’ve got to be serious about this.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.