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Local COVID numbers set to rise as officials change counting method

The official count of Calhoun County residents infected with coronavirus is going to take a big leap in the next few days, but not because of a sudden spike in new infections. 

Officials at the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency say they will soon begin including “probable” cases in their daily count of people infected with the virus — something state agencies began doing weeks ago. 

“Those probable cases are very likely real cases,” said EMA director Michael Barton.

As of Friday morning, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 3,260 people in Calhoun County have been confirmed infected with coronavirus using the most reliable tests. Those tests use polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a process that identifies the genes of the COVID virus. It often takes days for a lab to return results in one of those tests.

Another 368 people in the county have tested positive through rapid COVID tests that look for antigens to the COVID virus. In the past, those tests have been generally considered less accurate than PCR tests. They’re the ones state officials count as “probable” cases of coronavirus. 

Add those two counts together, and you’ve got 3,628 people with coronavirus in Calhoun County. Barton said that as rapid tests improve, there is more justification for adding those numbers into the mix. 

“The science of the probables has come a long way,” Barton said. 

Another reason for the change is the number of calls the EMA is getting from confused members of the public. Many media outlets have begun reporting the higher numbers, which don’t match the numbers reported by the EMA. (The Anniston Star, to date, has stuck with the lower numbers reported by the EMA.)

“We just want to make sure we’re accurate and consistent with how we report, along with the Alabama Department of Public Health,” Barton said. 

Deadlier than any local disaster

There’s more at stake than just digits. 

In February, when the federal government proposed bringing dozens of coronavirus-exposed cruise ship passengers to Calhoun County to recover, the backlash filled city council and county commission chambers with crowds of upset local residents. 

Today, more than 200,000 nationwide are dead from the virus, and Alabama residents barely bat an eye when 1,000 new cases emerge in a single day. The rising counts are alarming and numbing at the same time. 

But even by the most conservative count, Barton said, coronavirus has been deadlier than any single known disaster in Calhoun County history. Twenty people died in Goshen United Methodist Church when it was hit by a tornado on Palm Sunday in 1994. Nine in the county were killed in the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak. 

By the most conservative count, coronavirus has killed 36 Calhoun County residents. Barton said the true count is likely 49, though it can take weeks for the state to add new deaths to the official count. 

“That’s a good many people who, if it weren't for COVID, could be alive today,” Barton said. “It rivals Goshen. It exceeds Goshen.”

Many public health experts have warned of a second wave of the virus that could hit over the fall and winter. So far, there is no sign that wave has begun in Calhoun County. The average daily number of new cases here has remained steady since mid-August.

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