Officials Stress Masks, Social Distancing, Sanitizing as COVID-19 Numbers Rise

The message might resemble a broken record, but it will continue to be repeated until the rise of novel coronavirus cases in Madison County is itself broken.

While confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in the county as well statewide health officials continue to stress the importance of following safety guidelines.

The oft-repeated message is simple: wear face coverings, practice social distancing and sanitize hands.

“If 80 percent of our community would mask, cover their faces, then we would reduce transmission by 90 percent,” Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said Wednesday at the first COVID-19 briefing in a week.

If more people within the community don’t start or continue to follow precautions, she said, “we’re going to continue to see more of this.’’

This is a surge that has alarmed local officials enough that a county-wide health order was issued this week that face coverings were mandatory in public businesses and gatherings. Local hospitals are nearing capacity on beds available, and further surges could place a burden on the healthcare system.

Last week, the state health department was monitoring roughly 500 COVID-19 cases in the county. This week, that number is up to 847. Through Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Health reported 46,424 confirmed cases among 467,754 tested and 1,032 deaths. In Madison County, there have been 1,620 confirmed cases and eight deaths.

Hudson said the reason is likely due to the lack of following precautionary steps. Masking and distancing, she said, can help reduce the speak and lessen the burden on hospital staff and resources.

“I’d like to suggest we think about this masking and distancing as a temporary vaccination,’’ she said. “We are waiting for the scientists and the pharmaceutical companies to come up with a vaccine that works. It’s months away.

“Meanwhile, we have to save ourselves for the day that we will have access to the vaccine.”

Madison Mayor Paul Finley assured residents police would not be looking to flag people for not wearing masks in public but instead will have masks for anyone who asks them for one. He said people need to make the wise choice even if they don’t agree with it.

“We have a choice with our attitude,” Finley said. “Not everybody is going to agree with everything that’s done, I think everybody can agree our goal is to get through this as quickly as we possibly can and get back to a normal life that allows us to focus on the things that make us happy.”

According to Hudson, health officials’ biggest concern right now is not space of supplies at the hospitals but the stress being placed on frontline caregivers.

“Our ambulances had the greatest number (Tuesday) of runs since this started,’’ she said. “They are finding that, what was quoted to us today, in about 20 percent of the runs they make they’re having to do the full PPE, which is an increase as well.” 

Masks are Mandatory in Public in Madison County

After weeks of consideration but holding off on making a hard decision, Huntsville, Madison and Madison County officials came to a decision they’d hoped to avoid.
Starting today at 5 p.m., all county residents will be required to wear face coverings in public as mandated by the Alabama Department of Public Health, at the request of infectious disease specialist Dr. Karen Landers of the ADPH.
Mayors Tommy Battle of Huntsville and Paul Finley of Madison and Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong previously said the difficulty in enforcing the mandate made them hesitate to proclaim it across the county.
But, as Battle recently said, they’d collectively do what health officials suggested. They came to the conclusion face-covering was necessary to control a recent spike of COVID-19 cases not only in the county but across Alabama.
Madison County joins a growing list of cities and counties to require face coverings, joining among others Jefferson County (Birmingham), Montgomery, Mobile and Tuscaloosa.
According to a statement from the ADPH, this health order has the unanimous support of the Madison County Board of Health, Battle, Finley and Strong.
“This is a simple math problem,’’ Battle said in the statement. “Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent. We need to take precautionary measures, such as wearing face covers, distancing 6 feet, and handwashing to provide a safe environment for our citizens.’’
​Finley said, “Since day one we as elected officials have said we would work to find the balance of personal versus economic health. While personal responsibility is still paramount, our dramatic rising numbers dictate this step be taken to continue to support all citizens’ safety.’’
COVID-19 is spread through respiratory routes and face coverings — along with sanitizing hands and social distancing — is considered the first line of defense against the spread of the disease.
Medical-grade masks are not required. Coverings may be made from scarves, bandanas, or other fabrics.
Face coverings are required in the following Madison County locations:
  • Indoor spaces of businesses or venues open to the public, including stores, bars, restaurants, entertainment venues, public meeting spaces, or government buildings.
  • Transportation services available to the public, including mass transit, paratransit, taxi, or ride-sharing services.
  • Outdoor areas open to the public where 10 or more persons are gathered and where people are unable to maintain a distance of 6 or more feet between persons not from the same household.

Exceptions to wearing face coverings or masks include:

  • Children age 2 and under.
  • Persons while eating or drinking.
  • Patients in examination rooms of medical offices, dental offices, clinics, or hospitals where their examination of the mouth or nasal area is necessary.
  • Customers receiving hair care services, temporary removal of face coverings when needed to provide hair care.
  • Occasions when wearing a face covering poses a significant mental or physical health, safety or security risk. These include worksite risks.
  • Although not mandated, face coverings are strongly recommended for congregants at worship services and for situations where people from different households are unable to or unlikely to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other.
  • When effective communication is needed for hearing-impaired persons and those speaking to a large group of people, provided the speaker can stay at least 6 feet away from other persons.
  • Indoor athletic facilities. Patrons are not required to wear face coverings while actively participating in permitted athletic activities, but employees in regular interaction with patrons are required to wear face coverings or masks.
  • Private clubs and gatherings not open to the public and where a consistent 6-foot distance between persons from different households is maintained.

Parents, guardians and caregivers must ensure the proper masking of children over age 2 in public places, ensure face coverings do not pose a choking hazard for children and can be worn safely without obstructing a child’s ability to breathe.

Child care establishments and schools are to develop their face covering policies and procedures.

All businesses and venues open to the public must provide a notice stating that face coverings are required inside the establishment.

Signs are required at all public entrances.

County Commission Chairman: ‘We Don’t Have This Pandemic Under Control’

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong sounded a resounding alarm during Monday’s COVID-19 press briefing.

“We don’t have this pandemic under control, Strong said. “Not in Madison County, not throughout the state of Alabama and not in the United States.”

The comments came on the same day that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, was quoted at a press briefing in Geneva saying the pandemic is speeding up globally and the “worst is yet to come.’’

“We all want this to be over,’’ he said. “We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is that it’s not even close to being over.’’

Also Monday, Arizona joined Texas and Florida whose governors closed down such gathering spots as bars, gyms, and beaches to combat spikes of the novel coronavirus in those states.

Meanwhile, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers reported a spike in Madison County and the region.

“As of (Monday), we have 115 COVID positive inpatients in our system,” Spillers said. “When I reported on June 1, we had 28. So that’s a substantial increase in the month of June.”

Spillers said local and area hospitals have enough beds to deal with virus surges that require hospitalization. What he fears right now is the exposure of health care workers.

Strong noted that 14 HEMSI workers were out Monday because they’ve been exposed to a COVID-19 patient or a family member has tested positive.

Spillers and Strong both continued to stress wearing face coverings as a way to combat the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know when wearing face coverings became a political statement, and I’m sorry that it has,” Spillers said. “It hasn’t got anything to do with that. It’s just an effective way to keep people from transmitting the disease.’’

Strong said he’s heard from people who don’t want to wear a mask.

“There are people that believe they want to preserve their freedoms,’’ Strong said. “If they don’t want to wear one, they don’t believe they should be made to wear one. There are different dynamics today than we had a week ago, nevertheless 14 weeks ago.’’

The rising positive cases of COVID-19 locally and statewide, Strong said, should sway doubters into wearing face coverings. Face coverings are required within county offices.

“You look at the mistakes of other states, we don’t want to make the same mistakes they’ve made,’’ he said. “The mask has proven to be beneficial to the people of Madison County.

“In the study, or what we’ve done at the Madison County Commission for about four or five days, people didn’t like it, but then you look back several weeks later and we’ve had no cases that we’ve tied to the Madison County Courthouse.’’

The 115 inpatients Spillers alluded to include a 16-year old who is one of 11 coronavirus positive patients on a ventilator and among 16 total in ICUs. There are 44 inpatients in Madison County, including 38 at Huntsville main, six in Madison, and two in Crestwood Medical Center.

Other coronavirus numbers:

  • Decatur Morgan Hospital has 20 inpatients with coronavirus and Marshall County has 30.
  • There are 12 inpatients with coronavirus at Helen Keller Hospital and Athens Limestone Hospital has nine.
  • The average age of hospitalization for the coronavirus is the mid-50s with the majority of those having pre-existing conditions.
  • There are nearly 37,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 900 deaths statewide, while in Madison County the numbers are 996 and six.

Huntsville Hospital has the highest number of cases since its first positive patient was admitted. As businesses re-open and sports are coming back to life, Spillers cautioned that not going backward like Arizona, Texas and Florida is to practice safeguards.

“We can’t go back to normal without some protections in place,” he said. “That’s not going to work.”