The statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public places will stay in effect until Nov. 8, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday.
"The good news is, during the past few weeks Alabama has made real progress," Ivey said in a livestreamed press conference from the Alabama State Capitol. That progress, she said, "isn't just luck or coincidence."
Ivey also announced that the state health order will allow hospital and nursing home patients to have visits from one caregiver or visitor at a time — pending some health restrictions. Ivey said the announcement was a "clarification," and that some institutions had interpreted the health order as more restrictive than it was intended to be.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 137,564 people in Alabama have been infected with COVID-19 and 2,399 people have died of the virus, according to numbers released Wednesday morning by the Alabama Department of Public Health.
In Calhoun County, 36 people are confirmed dead from the virus, with another eight deaths that state investigators believe are likely due to COVID-19. About 3 percent of the county's population has been infected since the pandemic began.
The state was shut down for much of April, under a stay-home order designed to prevent spread of the virus. That stay-home order caused a massive spike in statewide unemployment.
Reopening of various businesses began in May, but without a statewide mask order in place. Infections and hospitalizations for COVID-19 surged in July and early August, but declined a few weeks after state officials first imposed the mask order. The infection rate has remained steady since mid-August.
"The mask order is working," Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer, said at Ivey's press conference. He said there is evidence that masks do work, noting that the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is now about half what it was in July.
Statewide, only about 7 percent of COVID tests now come back positive, Harris said — the lowest numbers the state has seen in months. A high positivity rate is generally considered a sign of rapid spread of the virus.
A map distributed by the governor's office before the press conference shows Cleburne County with one of the highest positivity rates in the state. The sparsely populated county has conducted only about 2,000 coronavirus tests since the pandemic began, according to state numbers, so a small number of positive tests could affect that rate. Ivey and Harris did not address the Cleburne County rate at the press conference.
Health experts around the country have warned of a possible second wave of the virus as cold weather arrives. There is also concern about the arrival of the annual influenza season around the same time, putting additional strain on hospital resources.
"I think the real concern is that we don't know how flu season works in COVID times," Harris said.
Harris said hospital officials have learned much in recent weeks about prioritizing resources such as ventilators. He said the state's flu season plan is "simply a larger version of the plan that we now have in place" for COVID-19.