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In Ohatchee, pandemic is both ever-present and far away

Ohatchee testing

Karen Cobb goes over some instructions before giving a driver in Ohatchee Wednesday a coronavirus test. A group of nurses from the Calhoun County Health Department conducted testing Wednesday morning at Town Hall. 

OHATCHEE — Josh Blanks doesn't know anyone who’s had COVID-19, but he thinks about the virus every day.

Before the pandemic, he worked for Jet Technology in Jacksonville, setting up appointments for people who buy cars online. For months, though, he’s been stuck at his home in Ohatchee. 

“I'm supposed to back to work in July,” he said. “I’m  going crazy staying at home.”

Blanks was going about his stuck-at-home errands Wednesday, filling up a gas can at the Mapco station on Alabama 77, after stopping by Dollar General for some groceries. Across the highway, in the parking lot of Ohatchee Town Hall, medical workers in gowns and masks were swabbing the noses of drivers who pulled up for free coronavirus tests.

That’s life in Ohatchee, Calhoun County's second-smallest town, in the year of the pandemic. For the town’s roughly 1,100 residents the virus is both unavoidable and unseen, a real threat but also distant, like news reports of a foreign war. 

Statewide, the virus continues to surge. Alabama reported more than 900 new cases Wednesday morning, bringing the total number of infected Alabamians to 31,624. The 14-day average of new daily cases is higher than it has ever been, and at least 879 Alabamians have died of the virus since mid-March. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on Wednesday declared that visitors from Alabama — along with eight other states deemed coronavirus hot spots — would be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. 

In Calhoun County, though, those numbers don't always feel like on-the-ground fact. With 212 people infected and five counted by the state as killed by the virus, the county has one of the lowest per-capita infection rates in the state. 

That has left some Ohatchee residents not quite knowing what to think about news of the virus.

“I ain't got much faith in the testing myself,” said Curt Dover, an Ohatchee resident.

Dover said he doesn’t know anyone who's had the virus, though he said it’s been a hindrance to social life. He said he’s heard reports of people who tested positive and then were retested and came back negative. He's quick to note that President Donald Trump said the case count would drop if people would simply stop testing, though Dover is reluctant to say whether he thinks less testing is the right idea.

“I'm a Trump man,” he said. 

Asked about the possibility of false positives in a Zoom press conference later Wednesday, UAB infectious diseases specialist Dr. Molly Fleece said that most testing is now done through “molecular methods” that look for pieces of genetic material specific to the virus. Some people may come back positive and never develop symptoms, she said, but the tests are largely reliable. 

“I'm less concerned for a false positive test from those methods overall,” she said. 

Judging from the steady stream of cars at the Town Hall testing site, many Ohatchee residents do trust testing. Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency director Michael Barton said that by 10 a.m., the site had conducted about 60 tests, with two hours left to go. 

Lewis and Lynn Humphries waited in line just after 10 a.m., both of them in masks. The couple wanted to be tested even though neither had symptoms. Lewis Humphries was quick to point out that he's 74; Lynn Humphries is 72.

Both said they follow news about the virus regularly, and jumped at the chance for a test once they got an automated call about testing from the EMA. It's the first such testing site in Ohatchee.

“This is the only way we can know what's really going on,” Lewis Humphries said.

Social distance was part of life in sparsely populated Ohatchee long before the pandemic, broken by trips to Mapco or Jack’s or services at church. Most of Ohatchee’s few businesses seemed to be doing brisk trade Wednesday. Since the end of May, most of the state’s pandemic-era restrictions on businesses have been lifted, though there are still limits on the number of people permitted in a store. 

Those limits are set to expire July 3. State officials have yet to say whether they’ll be extended or expanded. Meanwhile, public health experts are increasingly in agreement that Alabama’s recent increase in COVID-19 cases is due largely to people returning to pre-pandemic activities, often without masks, after the stay-home order ended. 

“The biggest challenge that we're facing now is the desire to return to our old normal,” Fleece said in her press conference Wednesday. 

Two-thirds of Americans in a Pew Research poll released this week said they wear a mask in public most or all of the time, though compliance varies depending on where respondents live. Eight in 10 people in areas with a high rate of death from COVID-19 say they wear masks. In counties with a low death toll, the number is 55 percent.

Fleece said mask-wearing remains one of the best simple steps a person can take to prevent spread of the virus. 

Masks work, she said. “By wearing our masks, we can truly have an effect.”

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

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