Face-Coverings Said Helping in Local Battle Against COVID-19; Number of New Cases Declines

     The numbers are in and they tell one story: face coverings are winning the battle against the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

     Since the Madison County Health Department began requiring everyone to wear face coverings in all businesses and gatherings in groups, the number of positive test results for the virus has gone down after the county experienced a surge.

     Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health issued the mandate July 7 on behalf of the county. About two weeks later, the number of positive test results began to drop.

     “Since July 22, every day the number of new cases has declined,’’ Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said during Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Right before that, we were announcing 175 new cases per day. (Wednesday) the announcement is 56.’’

     Madison County had a low number of positive cases compared to many others in the state until after Memorial Day. Cases began to spike and Madison County now has the highest total of positives in North Alabama.

     But, the statistics are looking more favorable.

     “Madison County has had a sustained decline in three-day, seven-day and 14-day average increase in cases,” Hudson said.

     Madison Mayor Paul Finley credits the face-covering mandate — and the willingness of residents to follow those orders.

     “People are doing what they’re being asked to do,’’ he said. “We can see in the numbers that it’s starting to make a difference.’’

     As of Wednesday, Madison County had 4,501 confirmed virus cases and 25 deaths while statewide those numbers were 81,572 and 1,489. Gov. Kay Ivey ordered mandatory face coverings statewide nine days after Madison County’s order.

     “The state and the surrounding counties, their decline has not been as dramatic,’’ Hudson said. “Why? Because they didn’t start the serious masking until about a week or so after Madison County.”

     Also Wednesday, Ivey extended the state’s “safer-at-home’’ order until Aug. 31. She also ordered mask requirements for state students and teachers in classrooms from second grade through college.

    Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County school districts will hold virtual-only classes for the first nine weeks when they resume. The Alabama High School Athletic Association announced its fall sports seasons would start on time though two south Alabama counties — Sumter and Greene — canceled athletics for the first nine weeks and one — Barbour — shelved all sports for 2020-21.

     Meanwhile, Hudson said that hospitals in the county are still feeling the results of the surge even as cases decrease. Currently, she said, there are between 120 and 130 COVID-19 inpatients in the county.

     And while recent news has been positive, officials continue to emphasize the importance of wearing coverings over the mouth and nose, social-distancing and hand-sanitizing.

     “Let’s not get complacent,’’ Finley said.

Data Suggest Local COVID-19 Curve Flattening

After a period of spiking coronavirus positive tests within Madison County, some good news surfaced last week.

County Commission Chair Dale Strong said recent numbers suggest the COVID-19 curve is flattening. The national Center for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its suggested quarantine time and the Alabama High School Athletic Association announced fall sports would begin on time.

Also, schools will reopen in August after they were shuttered in March when the virus entered Alabama. However, Huntsville City, Madison and Madison County all agreed to do virtual learning for at least the first nine weeks.

“For the first 12 weeks (of the virus), Madison County experienced a minimal increase in cases while positive cases (in recent) weeks skyrocketed, and our hospitals continued to meet health care needs,’’ Strong said at Friday’s COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

In the wake of mandates from the Madison County Health Department and Gov. Kay Ivey, the demand for testing and the need for hospital stays due to the virus have decreased.

“We’ve begun to see a reduction in the number of new cases compared to prior weeks and that indicates mitigating measures are working,’’ Strong said. “The demand for testing has been reduced by almost 10 percent and hospitalizations for coronavirus appear to be flattening across Madison County.’’

But the statistics remain bleak.

There were 145 positive tests Thursday and 154 more Friday within Madison County. There are more than 250 health care workers who have tested positive. As of Saturday morning, 4,142 of the 48,298 people tested in Madison County were positive and there have been 21 confirmed deaths.

Meanwhile, there have been 76,314 confirmed cases of the 639,795 people tested statewide with 1,413 confirmed deaths.

Heading into the weekend, Huntsville Hospital had 106 inpatients who tested positive in its three countywide facilities and Crestwood Medical Center had 15.

Also at the briefing, Dr. Karen Landers of the  Alabama Department of Public Health said, per CDC guidelines, people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive should isolate for 10 days instead of the previously recommended 14.

In Montgomery, the AHSAA’s Central Board voted to implement the Return to Play Best Practices guidelines as a return to playing fields was greenlighted. Spring sports were canceled along with classroom learning in March.

Fall sports teams can begin workouts Monday. Football squads can work in helmets and shorts only for the first week, Volleyball, cross country and swimming and diving squads can use the first week for acclimation and tryouts.

Another option is beginning fall practice Aug. 3 and the first games and meets can start Aug. 20.

HudsonAlpha and Crestwood Medical Center Join to Help Treat ALS

In a collaborative effort with Crestwood Medical Center, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology recently launched the Impacting ALS project.

Last month, the ALS Association awarded HudsonAlpha a $20,000 grant, which will be used toward increasing the number of patients to participate in the Crestwood ALS Care Clinic, as part of Impacting ALS.

Directed by Drs. David White and Aruna Arora, the Crestwood ALS Care Clinic is the only National ALS Association Treatment Center of Excellence in Alabama. The clinic is also a Northeast ALS Consortium site with its mission to translate scientific advances into clinical research and new treatments for people with ALS.

“Crestwood is proud to have strong relationships with the ALS Chapter and our patients who are battling ALS,” said Dr. Pam Hudson, Crestwood Medical Center Chief Executive Officer. “We are excited to collaborate with HudsonAlpha on this project to better understand and treat this disease which will allow us to help improve the quality of life for ALS patients.”

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing the loss of voluntary muscle control. Commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it is estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans live with ALS; 15 new cases are diagnosed daily.

The life expectancy of a person with ALS is roughly two to five years from the time of diagnosis, although more than half of those with ALS live more than three years after diagnosis.

The goal of researchers is to untangle ALS and to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes. To that end, scientists are employing leading-edge technology, such as genomic sequencing to analyze genetic variants.

“Hopefully, in understanding some of the biology behind ALS, we’ll be able to understand different avenues of how this disease happens, what causes it, and eventually, be able to find targets that can be useful for therapeutics and different treatments,” said Dr. Richard M. Myers, HudsonAlpha President and Science Director. “We are grateful to work with Crestwood and ALS patients right here in Huntsville for this project.”

Visit, hudsonalpha.org/foundation/als-project/

An Egg-citing Donation Arrives for the Food Bank of North Alabama

The number of families in North Alabama needing food assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic has doubled in some counties and quadrupled in others. 

Shirley Schofield, Executive Director of the Food Bank of North Alabama, celebrated this week when Rick Pate, Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, showed up at the Huntsville headquarters with a donation of 400 dozen (4,800) eggs from Cal-Maine Foods.

The local contribution is part of a statewide donation of 54,000 eggs to Food Banks statewide. The eggs were shipped from the Cal-Maine location in Robertsdale to Montgomery and then distributed by R.E. Garrison Trucking to the North Alabama Food Bank. 

The Food Bank of North Alabama serves 11 counties. The organization’s mission is to end hunger by offering hunger relief programs that immediately feed people in need. That need has skyrocketed since the pandemic put so many people out of work in mid-March.

“We are so thankful to Rick and the people at Cal-Maine for making this contribution,” said Schofield. “We have many people getting food assistance for the first time and some of them have never been unemployed, so they have never been in these circumstances before.”

Schofield said in June the Food Bank delivered 1 million meals to families who needed it. That is up by 250,000 meals when compared to pre-COVID averages of 750,000 a month. Year-to-date, the Food Bank has provided 7.3 million meals, compared to under 5 million last year.

The Food Bank’s recent investment of nearly $12,000 in commercial-grade refrigerators for six rural pantry locations will come in handy, too.

“The timing is perfect,” said Schofield.

Cal-Maine Foods is the largest producer and marketer of shell eggs in the U.S. with a flock of approximately 36.2 million layers and 9.4 million pullets and breeders. In 2019, the company sold more than 1 billion dozen shell eggs.

Robins & Morton, Huntsville Hospital Announce Topping Out of Orthopedic & Spine Tower

 Robins & Morton and Huntsville Hospital recently announced that the hospital’s Orthopedic & Spine Tower officially reached its structural completion. 

The facility will feature 24 operating rooms, 14 observation rooms, post-anesthesia care units, pre-operational spaces and 72 patient rooms. (Photo/Marty Sellers)

The milestone, often called the “topping out,” also signifies that the 375,000-square-foot tower now stands at its ultimate height – 150 feet – at the corner of downtown Huntsville’s Gallatin Street and St. Clair Avenue, occupying the entire city block. Once it is complete next summer, the tower will be the largest project on the campus in nearly four decades. 

“As a longtime partner and friend of HH Health System, we are humbled to be a part of the HH Orthopedic and Spine Tower project,” Robins & Morton Huntsville Division Manager Mitch Coley said. “The facility will lead healthcare in the rapidly growing North Alabama area into the future and improve the quality of life for everyone in the region.

“The impact on the community where we live and work will be great, and we can’t think of a better way to give back than to be a part of this milestone project.” 

The facility will feature 24 operating rooms, 14 observation rooms, post-anesthesia care units, pre- operational spaces, 72 patient rooms, and shell space for future expansion. Additionally, it will house a kitchen, restaurant space, and a physician’s parking garage. 

Robins & Morton is serving as the construction manager and Chapman Sisson Architects designed the facility. 

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.”

 

Health, Civic Officials Plea: Wear Face Coverings, Use Hand Sanitizers, Practice Social Distancing.

Wear face coverings, use hand sanitizers and practice social distancing.

It’s neither a broken record nor a cliche, just the repeated pleas from health and civic officials urging Madison County residents to practice these safety measures to battle the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

That checklist continues to be the theme at the bi-weekly pandemic press conference at the Huntsville City Council chambers. Especially in light of the number of positive cases in the county spiking the last two weeks in the wake of protests and as restaurants, bars and businesses re-open.

And even for those who refuse to wear a mask, following those guidelines might keep at bay an ordinance to require them to wear masks at all public places.

“The last time I reported in our system hospitals across Alabama, we had about 30 inpatients; today we’ve got 70 inpatients in our hospitals across North Alabama,” Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said. “So we’ve seen a fairly substantial increase in the number of people who have COVID, who need hospital care.”

The number of local and area residents needing inpatient and ventilator care has also increased. Of the 70 patients in Huntsville Hospital facilities, there are 23 in Madison County with 16 in Huntsville and seven in Madison. Of the 23, seven are in intensive care and six are on ventilators.

Statewide, 348,687 people have been tested for the virus. Confirmed positives are at 30,031 and 831 deaths because of the coronavirus have been reported. In the county, there have been 23,865 tests with 711 confirmed cases and six deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The state has a population of nearly 5 million and Madison County has a population nearing 400,000. Less than 20 percent in both instances of the population have been tested.

“For the longest time, I presented to this group that about three percent of all of our tests were running positive,” Spillers said. “That’s now up to around six to eight percent of the tests we run are coming back positive.”

Spillers warned that younger people feeling immune to the deadly aspect of the disease should take caution while the average age of a COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital is 54.6.

“People tend to think this is much more skewed toward the elderly and, if you look at mortality, it is much more skewed toward the elderly. For me, 54 is not old at all.”

Meanwhile, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said he’s heard from both sides of the mask-wearing debate. He doesn’t see a clear path to making it work but acknowledged a city-wide requirement is not off the table.

“It’s a fine line to walk,’’ he said. “We want to make sure that we have public health, and we want people to do that, the question is, ‘If you did have a mask ordinance, how would you enforce it?’

“If we see numbers start to spike up, then we’re going to consider it much more than we have in the past.”

Battle said that if around 700 new cases develop, a mark ordinance would be given more “consideration.’’

Spillers fully supports wearing masks.

“In areas where you can stay separated, you may not need to wear a mask,” he said. “But in those areas where you come close to people, you’ve got to wear a mask.

“I think that that’s the single most important thing we could do to try to minimize the spread of coronavirus.”

 

Local COVID-19 Cases Increase; City, County on ‘Watch List’

Huntsville and Madison County enjoyed weeks as the poster child in the state for how to battle the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

While other counties seemed to struggle in dealing with the virus, Madison County maintained low numbers of confirmed cases.

That’s no longer true.

At Friday’s COVID-19 press briefing in the Huntsville City Council chambers, state and local officials produced ominous numbers as well as comments.

“One thing that stands out, as of last Friday (June 12), we had 85 quarantined cases in Madison County,’’ said county Emergency Management Director Jeff Birdwell. “(June 19), we have 243.

“Also a word of warning: We have received word that the city of Huntsville and Madison County is actually on the government’s COVID-19 watch list, which represents any organizations or governments that have more than a 200 percent increase in confirmed cases.

“I think it’s important that the community know that.”

Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) said the trend not only in Madison County but statewide is “disturbing.’’

The numbers on ADHP’s dashboard revealed these numbers Sunday: 29,538 confirmed cases statewide with 829 deaths, and 701 confirmed cases and six deaths in Madison County.

“Our numbers statewide have continued to climb,’’ Landers said. “This is an extremely disturbing trend to the Alabama Department of Public Health and to me personally as a health official.’’

About half of the cases in Madison County have been confirmed in the last month.

“With these rising numbers,’’ Landers said, “if we don’t get this under control, it is going to overwhelm our health care system, which has been the worry we have had the whole time.”

Hospitalizations have also risen because of the virus across the state, particularly in the 24-49 age group.

“Early on, this community took a very strong stance providing a lot of messaging and a lot of information, and our numbers were low in this county compared to other parts of the state,” Landers said. “But our numbers in this county have started to climb.

“We know that without any level of social distancing or without any level of personal protective measures that a person with COVID-19 under the most optimal conditions will transmit COVID-19 to 2 1/2 people. But it can actually be higher than that.”

While health officials and local authorities continue to stress safeguards against the virus — wearing face coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing — a trip to any reopened store reveals not everyone is taking any precautions.

“The hardest thing is enforcement,” Madison Mayor Paul Finley said. “How do you do that?”

Finley, Landers, and others at the bi-weekly COVID-19 briefings continue to persuade residents to take the virus seriously.

“We really have limited options in terms of prevention, and we really have limited options in terms of treatment,’’ Landers said. “However, the options we have in terms of prevention are actually not extremely noxious, if you will, and they’re not extremely difficult to carry out.’’