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RMC hits new high for COVID-19 patients, Alabama virus count rising faster

Testing testing

Coronavirus COVID-19 testing, such as this which took place recently in Ohatchee, will be conducted in Wellborn Friday. Shown is nurse Karen Cobb from the Calhoun County Health Department.

Coronavirus infection in Alabama continued to spike Thursday, with more than 2,100 new cases reported by state officials and ever-climbing numbers of people being treated in hospitals, including Anniston’s Regional Medical Center.

In Calhoun County, 33 new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus were reported Thursday, the second-highest daily number during the pandemic so far, among more than 200 cases in the last 14 days. The total number of people in the county who’ve tested positive reached 436.

“It’s important for people to see that this is not a one- or two-day trend,” Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency said Thursday. “We’re at a week now with very high numbers.”

The number of people being treated for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Regional Medical Center in Anniston had doubled since Monday, reaching 15 by Thursday, chief executive Louis Bass said.

“That is the most positive patients we’ve ever had on our unit” since the pandemic’s start earlier this year, Bass said.

Statewide, at least 1,125 patients were being treated in hospitals for the disease on Thursday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Barton noted that RMC was not close to its capacity yet, but that every bed occupied by a coronavirus patient meant less space at the hospital for other health care needs. And the experience of other counties with larger outbreaks shows that hospital capacity can quickly become a concern, he said.

“People need to take this serious, and to take the precautions that we’ve been talking about for some time to try to slow it as much as we can,” he said.

Those precautions are likely familiar to most by now: Stay home if you can, wear a mask and keep your distance from others if you must go out, and practice good personal hygiene. 

Bass said morale remains high among RMC’s staff. 

“It has been strong throughout this process,” he said, especially among those caring for coronavirus patients. A small number of staffers had tested positive for the virus and self-isolated, he said, but none has developed symptoms or been admitted for treatment.

The hospital’s stores of personal protective equipment are sufficient for now, Bass said, and staff have had no trouble procuring drugs such as remdesivir to treat patients for the disease.

Statewide, there had been 48,588 cases of the virus discovered since March by Thursday, 14,838 of them found in the last two weeks, according to figures from the Alabama Department of Public Health. At least 1,042 Alabamaians have died of the disease, five in Calhoun County, according to the figures.

Alabama has reported an average of more than 1,000 new cases per day over the last two weeks, the number of infections rising even as state officials declined to re-impose restrictions on public gatherings or to require people to wear masks in public. Some local governments have begun requiring masks, includingthe cities of Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, Selma and Tuscaloosa, along with Jefferson and Mobile counties. Anniston’s City Council on Tuesday discussed the possibility of a mask ordinance, with all but one member seeming open to the idea.

Rather than focus on whether governments are mandating masks or social distancing, Barton thinks people should use common sense.

“The science tells us that they’re effective,” he said. He said he was asked by someone in the community recently about the hope for a vaccine, and responded that that may be a year away.

“I believe the most effective vaccine we have right now is the wearing of masks and keeping distance from other people. That is the vaccine,” Barton said. “That is the only thing that we have, so use it.”

The EMA, Barton said, is working with health care providers to learn of potential hotspots in Calhoun County where the disease may be spreading, and putting resources into further testing in those areas. That’s led to a mobile testing clinic being planned for Friday at Wellborn Elementary School from 8 a.m. to noon.

Jacksonville State University on Thursday announced that four new cases had been found in students who’d been exposed in two separate events, on and off campus. The university said it had shifted its plans for freshman orientation sessions next week to online-only events, and said other campus events planned for next week were under discussion.

Alabama’s rise in COVID-19 infections comes as cases are spiking across much of the country, with more than 3 million people infected to date and more than 132,000 dead, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking data on the disease across the country and around the world.

For now, Bass said, the only ways to keep the numbers from climbing higher are to keep one’s distance from others, to wear a mask when in public and to “sanitize,” washing one’s hands and disinfecting surfaces.

“Those are the three things we know we can do that can make a difference right now,” Bass said, in keeping the public from spreading the disease.

‘We would prefer not to see them in the hospital,” he said.

Managing Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.