The coronavirus COVID-19 may have killed as many as 20 people in Calhoun County — more than twice the official death toll — local officials said in a press conference at Regional Medical Center in Anniston Monday afternoon.
The deaths come as Calhoun County continues a surge in new cases of coronavirus, filling local emergency rooms and straining the ability of local hospitals to handle the sick. Over the past two weeks, the county has averaged more than 50 new cases of COVID-19 per day, with new-case numbers continuing to rise.
“That is concerning. That is alarming,” said Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
According to the official count by the Alabama Department of Public Health, there have been nine deaths in Calhoun County due to COVID-19 as of Monday morning.
Local officials say there are two more deaths, from recent weeks, that have yet to be added to the count. Regional Medical Center CEO Louis Bass said on Monday that four people died over the weekend in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit. Barton said five people died of coronavirus last week in two local “long-term care facilities,” a category that includes nursing homes.
Barton declined to name the nursing homes or what local cities they are in, saying the nursing homes themselves would likely announce them through corporate channels. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services maintains a database of nursing home COVID-19 cases and deaths, but the most recent numbers in that database are from July 19.
The deaths are another sign that the moment local health officials have long feared — when the spread of the virus overwhelms local institutions’ ability to manage — is approaching.
There were 48 coronavirus patients in RMC’s COVID-19 unit as of Monday. The number of coronavirus patients in the hospital has hovered around 48 for the past week, and has never gone higher than 49, even as the number of confirmed cases grows. Bass said the hospital transferred two COVID-19 patients to another hospital on the last weekend in July and another patient over the weekend.
Bass said the workload is reaching the limit of what the COVID unit staff can manage.
“If we go much farther, we’d have to do it by cutting back on elective procedures,” he said.
The increase in patients is affecting people who need health care for reasons other than COVID-19. Bass and RMC doctors say there’s now a wait in the emergency room as coronavirus-positive patients come in. RMC’s sister hospital, Stringfellow, has been handling non-COVID intensive care patients, but CEO Joe Weaver said the hospital’s non-COVID intensive care unit is nearly full. Health officials have called for retired nurses to return and fill some of the staffing gaps caused by the virus. Weaver on Monday said staffing is a “back-end” issue.
The quickest and most effective way to help, he said, is for members of the public to wear masks, sanitize hands and maintain a distance from others.
“I still see a lot of people walking around without masks, without social distancing,” he said.
Doctors at RMC said they had encountered two patients infected in the first surge of the virus this spring who have returned to the hospital again with confirmed coronavirus cases. It’s possible those patients had false negative tests when they were discharged, Dr. Raul Magadia, RMC physician, said. He noted that the coronavirus test involves a swab for a sample that goes deep into the nose.
“We have a joke that if they did not cry, you didn’t do it right,” Magadia said.
Still, Magadia said, it’s possible the tests were right and people can catch the virus more than once.
“The positive testing might suggest that immunity wanes,” Magadia said.
Dr. Almena Free, an RMC physician, said it’s time for people to consider wearing masks even at home if they work in health care or another environment in which they might bring the virus home to vulnerable loved ones.
Free said people should act when they see others in public without masks. “If you’re out and you see people without masks, say, kindly, ‘Wear your masks,’” she said.
Local officials did offer a word of caution in releasing their count of 20 likely dead from the virus. Dr. Rohit Patel, an RMC physician, said it’s too early to be sure about all the uncounted cases.
“We have to be careful because some of the deaths might not be due to COVID-19,” he said.
On the whole, though, local officials seemed as urgent as they were in the first days of the pandemic. Barton on Monday said local residents should revisit their personal pandemic plans, making sure they have supplies on hand and identifying people to care for them if they do fall ill.
In total, the county had 1,560 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Monday morning. Statewide, there were nearly 90,000 confirmed cases, with 1,580 people dead.
Anniston city officials announced Monday that free drive-through coronavirus testing will be available at Greater Thankful Baptist Church on West 14th Street in Anniston on Aug. 11 from 7-11 a.m. No doctor’s referral is required.