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Five suspected dead of COVID-19 in past week as Calhoun County surge continues

7/27 COVID presser

Dr. Raul Magadia gives an update while RMC CEO Louis Bass looks on during a COVID-19 press conference in the RMC lobby in Anniston Monday afternoon. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Five people have died of coronavirus in Calhoun County in the past week, four of them over the weekend, doctors and public safety officials said Monday.

“We have high community spread and more people are becoming infected at a much more rapid rate,” Calhoun County Emergency Management Director Michael Barton said in a Monday press conference at Regional Medical Center in Anniston.

Calhoun County’s official death toll from the pandemic is six, but it often takes time for state officials to confirm local reports. If local officials are correct about the last week’s coronavirus fatalities, the official death toll will soon stand at 11.

The surge in deaths comes as the Anniston area, once seemingly detached from grim pandemic headlines, begins to see coronavirus take hold.

Calhoun County saw 81 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total number of infected people in the county to 1,157. Two weeks ago, there were half as many.

The rise of the pandemic is beginning to strain the abilities of hospitals here.

Dr. Almena Free, a physician at Regional Medical Center, said the hospital’s emergency room is packed. She said on Monday she saw “ambulances on the ramp, stretchers in the hallway, people in the annex being checked, people in the lobby — we’re working hard to do the best we can.”

RMC chief executive officer Louis Bass urged the public to use urgent care centers for lesser ailments and come to the emergency room only for true emergencies.

The hospital now holds 48 patients with coronavirus, 13 of them on ventilators, Bass said. The average age of hospitalized patients in Anniston is 66, he said, but the youngest is 20. Staffing is tight and nurses are working long hours, Bass said.

“Your actions outside of the hospital impact our employees tremendously,” Bass said. 

Throughout the pandemic, medical officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of wearing masks, washing hands and keeping a distance from others.

Dr. Raul Magadia, who works in RMC’s COVID unit, said proven tools to fight the virus are few. He said the hospital has seen some success with drugs such as dexamethasone and remdesivir, though the latter is hard to come by. Free said the hospital will soon take part in a trial of a new drug that could inhibit the “cytokine storm” that is a cause of COVID-19’s worst effects.

Still the doctors said the only truly proven defenses against the virus are the ones average people can do, such as hand-washing and wearing masks.

“It has been politicized, but it saves lives,” Magadia said of mask use.

Gov. Kay Ivey on July 15 announced a public health order that would require nearly everyone in the state to wear a face covering when in public places to prevent transmission of the virus. 

Public health officials have said the mask order would likely have to be in place for two to three weeks before numbers of new cases begin to decline. 

The mask order expires at the end of the week. Ivey has not yet announced whether it will be extended or for how long. 

The Alabama Beverage Control Board on Monday announced that starting Saturday, bars in the state would have to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m., stating in a press release that “reduced hours of alcohol service will decrease social gatherings and the transmission of COVID-19.”

Statewide, 79,129 were infected with the virus as of Monday, with 1,446 dead of the virus. More than 3,000 new cases emerged over the weekend, according to ADPH numbers.

The spread of the virus is also becoming obvious in institutions around Calhoun County. Jacksonville State University president Don Killingsworth last week announced he’d tested positive for the virus; he announced on Monday that a subsequent test was negative, and that the illness seemed to have run its course. In Cleburne County, Heflin’s mayor announced he’d tested positive, and two law enforcement officers there had tested positive as well.

Innotex, a firefighters’ clothing manufacturer in Ohatchee, shut down for a week in July after employees at the plant tested positive for the virus, plant manager Lisa Passerella said Monday. 

Passerella, citing privacy concerns, declined to say how many of the plant’s 72 employees tested positive. She said all the employees were paid while the plant was closed and all employees who tested negative were back at work.

“We care about our employees and we’re trying to do the best we can to keep them safe,” she said.

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