The coronavirus ward at Regional Medical Center, where doctors once worried they'd be swamped with seriously ill patients, could be empty this weekend.
One patient remains on RMC's dedicated COVID-19 unit, and that patient could be moved as soon as two negative test results come back, said Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist who works in the COVID unit.
Magadia was quick to say that the battle with coronavirus is far from over.
“I hope I'm wrong, and I'm hoping we don't see additional outbreaks, but short of having a vaccine, I think it's clear that this is going to be with us for a long time,” he said.
In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, RMC officials worked to put together a 22-bed ward with negative pressure rooms, equipped to handle the most serious COVID-19 patients without spreading the infection.
Health officials worried that the spread of the virus would swamp that ward, and they called on the Army Corps of Engineers to help them plan for an overflow facility at another site. But much of that planning came before the state health board, in early April, issued a sweeping health order that kept many businesses closed and many Alabamians stuck at home for weeks.
The order seems to have slowed the spread of the disease. Even so, the state had about 10,900 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon, with 473 dead. Calhoun County accounted for 127 of those cases. Three have died in the county.
RMC's COVID unit once had more than 20 patients, and the hospital had to house some in a separate, backup coronavirus unit within the hospital. That was early in the crisis, when testing was slower and many patients with respiratory symptoms similar to coronavirus were housed in the COVID ward, awaiting test results. Numbers dropped fast when the hospital acquired a new test that could give results in under an hour.
Magadia said the COVID unit's current patient is likely free of the virus, but will need two negative tests from an outside lab before she can leave the unit. The second test could come back as early as Saturday, he said.
Magadia cautioned that new patients could easily emerge between now and then.
"It's a very fluid situation," he said.
Magadia said there are two patients still at the hospital who’ve recovered from COVID-19 and have tested negative twice. They have not yet been released but are no longer on the COVID-19 ward, he said.
He said patient numbers stayed lower than originally predicted for one reason.
“It happened because of people listening to the authorities, hunkering down and staying at home,” he said. Magadia noted that China and other countries that seemed to have the virus under control have seen new cases. He said he's concerned about a surge of cases if people stop observing social distancing.
“I'm always worried about people being complacent,” he said.
Many of the state's social distancing restrictions were relaxed this week, with state officials lifting bans on large gatherings — as long as people stay 6 feet apart — and allowing the reopening of restaurants and most retail stores with reduced occupancy rates. The change came after weeks of cautioning by health officials, who said that widespread testing and contact tracing would have to precede reopening.
So far, about 4,300 people in the county have been tested, according to Myles Chamblee, a spokesman for the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
Local health officials tested 92 people at a free walk-up site at the Calhoun County Agriculture Center on Bynum-Leatherwood Road Thursday, according to Anniston city spokesman Jackson Hodges.
People have shown up for previous free testing sites without symptoms, and RMC officials said none has been turned away. In fact, for the Bynum-Leatherwood testing site, officials dropped any mention of a need for symptoms before a patient can get a test. Still, none of the free testing sites used up all the tests at their disposal.
Kandi Williams, an infectious disease control specialist for RMC, said about 10 percent of the coronavirus cases identified at the free sites were in people who had no symptoms. She said that highlights the need for testing because people could be spreading the disease without knowing they have it.
Tests at the free screening sites typically take three to five days to come back, and patients are told they shouldn't go back to work until their results come back negative. Not everyone is following that rule, Williams said.
"We're calling them with the results, and they're at work," she said. That's happened 10 or 15 times, Williams said.
RMC officials said they may hold one more free testing site, probably in Oxford.
Calhoun County's health department also offers testing by appointment on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Those who want to be tested can call the department at 256-240-7861.