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Stay-home order may be bending curve, officials say

Eight hospitalized with COVID-19 in Anniston, fewer than predicted, so far

Ivey news conference

Gov. Kay Ivey offers an update on Alabama's coronavirus response during a news conference at the State Capitol in Montgomery. Ivey said the state's outlook has improved as social distancing efforts have taken effect, but warned residents not to take that progress for granted. Also pictured are State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, left, and a sign language interpreter.

At least eight people had been hospitalized in Anniston with the coronavirus by Tuesday, three of them now on ventilators, Regional Medical Center CEO Louis Bass said.

Another 18 were hospitalized under investigation as possible COVID-19 patients — patients with some coronavirus symptoms who haven’t tested positive — and four of those were also on ventilators. 

That’s more than enough to fill the beds in the hospital’s newly-formed, 22-bed coronavirus unit. Bass said the hospital opened its second, 20-bed standby coronavirus unit Monday. 

Even so, local officials say the numbers could have been far worse. While the area definitely isn’t out of the woods, local officials say there may now be some evidence that social distancing is bending the curve of new infections. 

"Our original projections saw us having a pretty steep spike in hospitalizations this week," said Calhoun County Emergency Management Director Michael Barton. "But that was before the governor put a social distancing order in place."

More than 3,800 people in Alabama have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. A reported 105 have died. 

But Calhoun County has yet to see a death from the virus. Sixty-one people have tested positive so far. 

Bass, the RMC executive, said he wishes testing were faster. He said the hospital has many of its most serious respiratory cases in the COVID-19 unit, in negative-pressure rooms designed to prevent transmission of infection. Sometimes those patients test positive, he said, but patients also move out almost daily after negative tests. 

While cases are picking up, Bass said the numbers are below the levels local officials had originally expected by this time. It’s beginning to look possible — but not necessarily likely — that the disease won’t surge to the point that it overwhelms the hospital’s current facilities. 

“No one knows tomorrow,” Bass said. 

Barton said it's possible the state's lockdown, and earlier restrictions on large crowds, are beginning to have a noticeable effect on the number of infections.

"Without any concerted mitigation efforts, we'd be in a much worse place," Barton said. 

A little more than a week ago, Barton and other local officials put out a call for help in setting up an alternative hospital facility in case coronavirus does indeed overload area's hospitals. Local officials use their own disease models — not the much-discussed models from the University of Washington — and their numbers showed a spike this week that, according to Barton, would have the county at 189 percent of its hospital capacity by late April or early May. 

Then came the stay-at-home order, an April 5 ruling from the state health board that ordered people to stay inside except for work, grocery shopping and other essential business.

Barton said the state's current hospitalization rate is lower than that model predicted. Local officials expect 15 percent of the county to contract the virus eventually; the original prediction was 35 percent. 

For both state and local officials, the current count is a sign that lockdown is working. Even though the spread of the disease is likely a week or more from its peak in Alabama, officials are already beginning to talk about what comes next. How to reopen the economy to trade without reopening the public to infection?

"It's got to be a reasoned process," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a livestreamed press conference Tuesday. 

The state health order is in effect until April 30. Ivey didn't say Tuesday whether she would extend the order into May, but she did hint that reopening could be complicated "segment by segment and region by region." Asked if some now-closed segments of business could be reopened before April 30, Ivey said that was "possible," though she didn't offer details.

Talk about reopening is surging nationwide, in part because some models show the nationwide peak in infections from the first wave of COVID-19 has passed. Pressure is high in Alabama, too: Ivey said at her Tuesday press conference that the state has seen 264,000 unemployment claims filed in the month since the first coronavirus case was reported in the state.

Still, Alabama has yet to reach its infection peak, by most estimates, and it's unclear how many waves of infection the state will see before the health crisis ends.

"That's a good question," Barton said. "If you can find someone who has an answer I would like to talk to them."

Ivey said she'd appointed a six-person task force to study reopening of the state's businesses. State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, later said he's on that task force. Last week, Marsh published an opinion piece calling for a change that would keep in place restrictions on senior centers and nursing homes while allowing younger, more healthy people to get back to work. In a phone call Tuesday, Marsh said he'd just found out about his appointment to the task force and would keep his mind open. 

"None of us want to put any of the citizens of the state in danger," he said. "But there is a balance there that is a reasonable balance we've got to consider."

Local officials called in the Army Corps of Engineers last week to assess various local buildings as locations for possible surge sites if cases do spike. Barton said the corps has filed a preliminary report on the sites, though he said it’s too early to say if a surge site will in fact be built. 

State health officer Scott Harris said about 400 people are now hospitalized with the illness statewide. So far, he said, there has been no shortage of ventilators for severely ill patients, though personal protective equipment is hard to find everywhere. Harris said the statewide peak in infections is likely six or seven days.

Harris said the current projections for the virus look better than they did in recent weeks, a fact he attributed to compliance with the stay-at-home order. 

Barton, the Calhoun County emergency official, said that even if social distancing is changing the curve of the virus, that's no reason to stop taking precautions. 

"Even if things are looking better, there's still a threat and we all have to do our part," he said. 

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