Social gatherings and vacations over the long Labor Day weekend could bring another surge in COVID-19 cases, according to a top health expert at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
“Now is not the time to let up,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s infectious diseases division, in a teleconference with the press Thursday.
Marrazzo said health officials “have a sense of anxiety and deja vu” about the coming holiday, concerned that late September will see a surge in coronavirus cases similar to the weeks after the July 4th holiday weekend.
“We narrowly escaped a serious crisis with hospital capacity in July,” Marrazzo said.
Statewide, 2,120 people had died from the virus as of Thursday morning, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, with 118,601 infected in Alabama since the beginning of the pandemic.
In Calhoun County, the official death toll stands at 31, although local officials believe the real number stands at 42.
While the virus isn’t spreading as fast as it did in July, the death rate remains disturbingly high, according to Michael Barton, Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency Director.
“We’ve continued to see a steady death rate of almost one per day for the past month,” Barton said in a telephone interview.
The pre-Labor Day warning from health officials echoes warnings from July, when Alabama eased some of its coronavirus restrictions just as the state entered the Independence Day weekend.
Back then, the state had just more than 40,000 people infected, with fewer than 10,000 new cases emerging per day. By the end of July, more than 1,500 people lay in Alabama hospital beds fighting off COVID-19 infections, straining the capacity of some hospitals.
On Thursday, health officials were more confident in their pre-holiday warning.
“We know from experience what will happen,” Barton said. “There will be more infections, and those will convert to hospitalizations, and some of those will lead to deaths.”
Barton said it is almost certain people will get together with friends over the weekend, although he said people should continue to observe social distancing rules — wearing masks, keeping a distance and washing hands.
Even health officials are tired of hearing that advice, Marrazzo acknowledged, referring to them as the “old faithful boring messages” of social distancing. But those messages remain important, Marrazzo said.
In addition to holiday-related spread, there is also concern that people will be indoors more as fall weather begins and the typical cold-and-flu season takes hold, Marrazzo said.
Hundreds of children in various Calhoun County school systems have been sent home to quarantine after the school year began in August, according to school officials. Barton said Thursday that the number of actual infected students remains small, while larger numbers have been sent home because they were potentially exposed to the virus.
President Donald Trump has claimed a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready by the end of the year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has notified states to be ready to distribute a vaccine as early as November, according to accounts in the New York Times and other outlets. Marrazzo on Thursday said she did not think a vaccine would be ready that early.
Most vaccine trials, which involve inoculating people and then waiting to see if they catch the virus, won’t “show a signal” until at least early 2021, Marrazzo said. She said she was concerned about the potential health risks of a vaccine released too soon, and also concerned about the challenges of distributing a working vaccine in a country with a large number of vaccine-resisters. She said she has offered to be a volunteer for vaccine trials herself.
Marrazzo said doctors continue to observe new potential problems related to the virus, including the possibility that some patients can become re-infected and the presence of lingering health effects even in young patients months and weeks after they’ve been infected.
“Just because you are young, you do not get a pass on this,” she said.