School is back in, there’s a cool autumn breeze and so far, Dr. Almena Free hasn’t seen local signs of the COVID-19 surge most health officials expect this fall.
But it’s likely only a matter of time, said Free, chief of staff at Regional Medical Center in Anniston.
“We’re anticipating a surge, but there’s a lot that we still don’t know about the virus,” Free said. “We shall see.”
Free and other doctors have their eye on Europe and other U.S. states as they brace for a predicted “second wave” of COVID-19, something doctors have predicted since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 200,000 Americans have died of the virus since the pandemic arrived more than six months ago, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The most widely used model of future virus cases, done by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, projects more than 170,000 additional deaths in the country by the end of the year.
That same model shows new cases of the virus rising slowly in Alabama through October and accelerating through November and December to levels well beyond the surge the state saw this summer.
“Viruses like this usually surge in winter months, when people spend more time inside,” Free said. It’s believed that cool, dry air helps the virus to spread as well.
Worldwide, there are signs that a fall or winter wave has already begun. Twenty states are now seeing increasing rates of new infection, according to Johns Hopkins. New daily cases are surging across Europe.
So far, Calhoun County is seeing a period of relative quiet. The county sees about 32 new cases per day, a number that hasn’t increased since mid-August, when a statewide mandatory mask order began showing its effects.
When coronavirus surged in Alabama over the summer, coronavirus patients at one point filled 58 beds at Regional Medical Center. According to RMC CEO Louis Bass, there were only about two dozen COVID patients hospitalized last week, though that number grew to 33 by this week.
The summer surge came after doctors warned about spread of the virus after Independence Day get-togethers. That surge declined, as predicted, after the statewide mask order.
So far, there is no sign of a spike brought on by Labor Day vacationing and a return of in-person school — something public health authorities had worried about in recent weeks.
Free said that despite the lull, now is no time to let up on social distancing.
“We have to act as though we’re all contagious,” she said.
An old enemy
Doctors are also worried about the arrival of the regular flu season, which could bring a new influx of patients who will need testing for COVID-19, and who in some cases will also need to be hospitalized.
“We don’t know what the flu and COVID look like together,” said Dr. Erin Delaney, a University of Alabama professor who held a televised press conference about flu season with reporters on Thursday. It’s unclear how a dual infection would affect a patient, she said, but it’s clear that every flu season puts an additional burden on hospitals.
Delaney said it is not too early to seek a flu shot, and that parents should consider getting their kids vaccinated, something people often skip.
Delaney said it is possible that social distancing will slow the spread of the flu in the way it has slowed the coronavirus. The southern hemisphere, she noted, has already had a flu season that seems to bear that out.
Asked if there’s a way for patients to tell, before test results come in, whether they have coronavirus or flu, Delaney said the symptoms are very similar, although a loss of smell or taste is a lot more likely with COVID-19.
Delaney said Halloween trick-or-treating would likely be safe as long as people keep their faces covered and keep their distance. She suggested grownups should sanitize hands before handing out candy, or simply leave bagged candy at the doorstep for kids to take.
Some local fall events, such as high school football games and Oxfordfest, a fall arts and crafts festival in downtown Oxford, are still expected to happen. Tiffany DeBoer, a spokeswoman for the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, said outdoor events such as those can be safe as long as people observe social distancing rules.
Even so, EMA officials are urging people again to make plans to quarantine if it becomes necessary in coming months.
“It’s here and it’s going to be here for a while,” DeBoer said of the virus. “We need to have that mindset.”