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Masks and More Masks: “Celebrating” Halloween in the Time of COVID

Witches, goblins, and ghouls.

Costumes, candy, and yard décor.

It is evident that Halloween is a popular holiday here in America.

What other time of the year can adults and children alike freely dress up, disguised as their favorite superhero or movie icon, and legitimately beg for candy?

But will this year’s Halloween be different from years past and if so, how?

In the time of COVID, if one thing has proved to be certain, it is uncertainty.

2020 has already proven to be vastly different than any other year. After six months living under the dark cloud of a global pandemic, it is possible that some of the many large gatherings that normally take place here in the Rocket City might take a back seat.

As far trick-or-treating or home-based Halloween parties, it is hard to say.

While no one has directly come out and said, don’t go trick-or-treating, it has been implied.

“Local hospital representatives have advised against any close contact activity,” said Kelly Schrimsher, communications director for the City of Huntsville.

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) advises that all preventive measures and extreme caution be exercised in any instance where groups of people congregate.

“Congregate settings increase the potential for transmission of respiratory droplets,” said Dr. Karen Landers of the Huntsville’s COVID-19 team.

Despite the cautionary statements and recommendations, the natives are getting restless and, after many months of curtailed social encounters combined with a blisteringly hot summer, everyone is eager for the arrival of fall and the sense of merriment that Halloween brings.

Halloween falls on a Saturday this year, which is ideal for families and especially good for local entertainment venues.

But how will it play out here?

“We have several events going on this year and are hoping to add a few more,” said River Reed, event coordinator for Straight to Ale. “October’s Drag Brunch on the 25th is Halloween-themed and we (released) our Old Town Pumpkin Ale as a tribute both to the holiday and Huntsville History Month. Homegrown Comedy and Rocket City Art Hops, which are on the ninth and 15th respectively, also have a Halloween theme and we are encouraging attendees to come in costume.”

As far as hosting an event on Halloween, Straight to Ale hasn’t confirmed.

The state mandate limits eight people to a table and hosting a large group event, such as a Halloween party, presents a unique challenge.

“We do hope to have a costume contest and a few other Halloween-themed events, but we are working out the safest way to do so,” said Reed.

“Our events are all following all of our current safety protocols in the taproom,” said Kimberly Casey, marketing director at Straight to Ale. “This means all venue spaces are at half capacity, tables are spaced six feet apart, and masks must be worn when not seated at your table. Patrons can check out a detailed description of our policies before they visit at straighttoale.com/updates.”

In addition to the social gathering aspect, Halloween is a big deal for retail.

Since the National Retail Federation began keeping track in 2005, Halloween spending has almost doubled. In 2019, close to $9 billion was spent on costumes, candy, and decorations alone.

These figures do not factor in the additional revenue generated at bars, clubs, and other entertainment venues such as haunted houses, corn mazes, and hayrides. Without this substantial boost of holiday-inspired spending, it could mean another massive blow to the nation’s economy.

While nothing has been set in stone locally, it remains to be seen whether any mandates will come into play regarding Halloween activities and events.

In major cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, decisions have already been made and revised, or at least modified, in response to community push-back. In L.A., large-scale Halloween events at the big theme parks, such as Universal Studios and Disney have been canceled. At the city level, although the smaller neighborhood events and the door-to-door candy hustles are “not recommended,” city ordinances will not be enforced.

In the meantime, local retail establishments remain hopeful. Stores that specialize in Halloween décor and apparel are well-stocked with an assortment of costumes, just in case.

Flu Season Could Impact Health Care Resources in Wake of Pandemic

The impending flu season could strain an already stretched health care system.

At last week’s COVID-19 update, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said the flu season could impact the pressures put on the area’s healthcare system.

“I do want to encourage everybody to start thinking about getting your flu shot,’’ he said. “Those will be available soon. It’s going to be very hard if people don’t get the flu shot and do get the flu.

“When they show up at any health care facility, we’re going to assume you have COVID until we know you don’t have COVID. So it will use up a lot of tests, take up a lot of your time, you’ll have to be quarantined, et cetera. My best advice is to get the flu shot.”

Meanwhile, the federal government reported it’s close to developing a vaccine for COVID-19 to be widely available in 2021. State officials are starting preparations for providing vaccines when they become available.

“We’ve got a large number of people from Madison County on a call (Tuesday),” Spillers said. “We’re going to be working with the state and probably over the next, I’d say within two weeks we’ll have a good plan. Long before the vaccine’s here, we’ll have a good plan not only for how we’re going to distribute, who we’re going to test, some idea of how many we think we might get, those types of things.”

As of Monday, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported 131,405 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 2,292 deaths. Those totals for Madison County were 7,267 and 67.

 

Coronavirus Numbers Trending Downward but Flu Season Looms on the Horizon

Positive news has been the constant for recent COVID-19 press conferences at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

Nothing changed Friday as Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health and Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong produced statistics that suggest the novel coronavirus is trending downward, not just in the county but throughout the state..

But there was also a caveat: Regular ol’ flu season lurks in the near future, something that could throw a wrench in designs on getting back to normalcy if proper precautions aren’t taken.

“Flu season is going to be upon us relatively shortly and this year we must make sure that persons eligible for the flu vaccine — that’s persons six months or older who do not have a medical reason not to take the vaccine — get one,’’ she said.

“Flu vaccine is very safe and not something most people cannot take. Everyone needs to take a flu shot this year. That is very, very important.’’

The infectious disease specialist also debunked a common myth that is circulated every year.

“You cannot get influenza from a flu vaccine,’’ she said.

As for the current status of COVID-19 in Madison County, the total number of confirmed cases as of Saturday was 5,661 with 35 confirmed deaths. Statewide, the numbers are 103, 357 and 1,828.

The ADPH reports the positive testing rate for COVID-19 has declined. Landers said Friday’s preliminary positivity rate was 11.1 percent, down from Thursday’s 12.3 percent.

She also sa9d it was important to continue practicing the now-familiar safeguards: wearing face coverings, social distancing, sanitizing and hand-washing to slow the spread.

“What I believe, as the indicator shows, is that the multiple activities that we are taking to reduce the spread of this disease, such as the social distancing, the respiratory hygiene and the use of the cloth face covering, is having an impact,” she said. “We do appear to be having a flattening, a minimal decline, but nevertheless a decline in our numbers of hospitalization.

“So, I do believe we’re going in the right direction with this, and I think it will be very important that we continue to move in this direction over the next several weeks.”

Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County schools returned Aug. 12 with virtual learning. Other school systems in the Tennessee Valley returned to classrooms, and subsequently hundreds of students were placed in quarantine.

Landers said those students had not tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 but had compatible symptoms. She added the ASHP would review its guidelines on returning to campus.

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said new cases of coronavirus in Madison County have “slowed to levels we haven’t experienced since late June’’ with cases down 25 percent since last week and down almost 30 percent in the last 14 days.

According to Strong, Huntsville Hospital has 97 coronavirus inpatients with 31 in the ICU and 21 on ventilators.

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.

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.

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.’’

 

Rime of COVID-19: Virus Hanging Like an Albatross Around Our Necks

While protests worldwide have taken over the headlines, there remains one albatross around America’s and the world’s collective necks.

The COVID-19 pandemic.

And as unrest surrounding many of the protests, including in Huntsville, against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer this country is facing another big question.

Will the hundreds and even thousands of people in close-in crowds hasten what is feared to be a second round of the virus?

“There’s more opportunity for people to get sick, there’s no doubt about it,’’ Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said. “Whether or not that creates the spike we’re all looking for I don’t know. I don’t think we know enough about this virus to know if it’s contagious in the middle of the summer when it’s 90 degrees as it is or when it’s 35 degrees and we’re all together.

“I think any social event is an opportunity for people to get sick if somebody in that group is sick if they don’t practice distancing. And I know it’s probably hard to do when you’re in a crowd like that.’’

Spillers predicted there will likely be a spike in two weeks when any protestors contract the virus. He also local hospitals “have a plan if there is a spike.’’

The Alabama Department of Public Health’s website joined many throughout the nation in experiencing trouble updating its statistics last week when a backlog of lab results overwhelmed systems.

But during Friday’s pandemic briefing it was announced the figures posted at the ADPH site were back in order. Those results as of Saturday night showed there have been 359 confirmed cases of the virus with four deaths in Madison County.

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong reported that Huntsville Hospital has seven in-patients and Madison Hospital has two with none of those on ventilators.

Earlier, Spillers said, “I look at the numbers and while I’m not unhappy about it, I’d like the numbers to be less. But I’m an optimist and we’re holding our own and I think we’ll be OK.

“But all that could change quickly if we’re not very careful.’’

Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield recommended that anyone who has attended a protest gets tested. But, Spillers said not many asymptomatic people Huntsville has tested have proved to be positive and that no system has “an unlimited supply.’’

Dr. Karen Landers of the ADPH said while anyone experiencing symptoms shouldn’t hesitate to seek testing, prudence should be in order.

“I get asked a lot of times about a large entity where perhaps a person has had a case,’’ she said. “We have to remember not everyone is not going to develop Covid-19 and not everyone has the same level of exposure.

“We’re really talking about people that are either household, intimate partner, or close contacts where there are less than six feet of space for greater than 15 minutes. It’s really all about the time and the exposure to the person.”

 

Medical Officials Concerned About Disease Affecting Children

An alert has been issued about a rare inflammatory disease that could possibly be related to COVID-19.

The condition — Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome — so far has only been diagnosed in children. No cases have been found within the state, but Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health said her department is monitoring the situation, and alerts have been sent to doctors statewide.

Symptoms of the syndrome include fever and rash. It’s being referred to as a Kawasaki-like disease.

“(Kawasaki) is a disease that is still not well understood in the pediatric medical community, but I saw it early in my career so Kawasaki disease has been around for a long time,’’ Landers said during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Whether or not it is related to COVID-19 is still to be determined.’’

Kawasaki causes fever, followed by inflammation in blood vessels throughout the body. The condition most often affects kids younger than 5 years old.

“I might just remind parents, and as a pediatrician myself, that in this time we’re focusing on COVID, we do not need to forget routine preventative care is very important,’’ Landers said.

As of Saturday morning, the ADPH website listed 11,389 confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide and 274 in Madison County. There were 23 deaths overnight Friday to bring the total to 485, while the death toll in the county remained at four.

Last week, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said six coronavirus cases were confirmed at the Fever and Flu Clinic but said he didn’t know if all were county residents. Spillers said it was the highest number of positive results in “about 30 days.’’

“We’re not panicking over that,’’ he said. “We all knew when we opened up the economy we would see more positive cases. I think that’s inevitable.’’

In the first week after Gov. Kay Ivey gave the green light to re-open the economy, Spillers said Huntsville Hospital did 1,500 elective surgeries and expected the same amount next week.

He also said Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center would maintain restrictions on the number of visitors for each patient and everyone would be required to wear a mask.

He also had words of caution as people try to find some normalcy.

“We need to be careful,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong continued to stress maintaining safe health practices such as wearing a mask, hand sanitizing, and social distancing. He said the turnout to county offices since re-opening has doubled.

“We’re thankful to those that have patiently waited in line and for following our new safety protocols,” Strong said. “They are working well.”