Face Masks Are Blunting the Pandemic, but Officials Warn the Threat Isn’t Over

Surgical face mask. Source: NurseTogether via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

COVID-19 positivity rates and the number of hospitalizations are declining here, but Jefferson County and UAB health officials warn safety precautions must remain in place.

“Face coverings have made a difference,” said Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County Health Officer.

He said mandatory facial coverings could be in place through the end of the year in an effort to combat the rise of COVID cases and to reduce the number of expected influenza cases. He urged everyone over the age of six months to get a flu shot as of Sept. 1.

“I don’t know what the state will do, but here in Jefferson County I plan to push for the wearing of face coverings through the end of the year,” Wilson said.

Gov. Kay Ivey late last month issued a statewide mandatory mask order, which is in effect at least until the end of this month.

The number of COVID patients at UAB Hospital began to increase July 20, jumping from 60 to 70 to 130 a day, said Will Ferniany, CEO of the University of Alabama Health Care System.

But as of Friday, there were only 92 COVID patients at UAB, Ferniany said.

Now health officials say they are faced with several challenges: schools and colleges reopening, fall sports and Labor Day activities, along with the impending flu season.

Wilson said private gatherings are a concern to him because they are not regulated.

Hospital Finances Stabilizing

Ferniany said UAB Hospital has recovered from the financial hit it took last spring when, he said, “We were projecting a $230 million loss.”

But hospital finances made a comeback after infusions of stimulus funds.

“We expect a small positive bottom line by Sept. 30,” he said.

Last May, the hospital cut employee salaries to recoup losses. But the state and federal money let officials reinstate salaries and pay employees back for their lost wages, Ferniany said.

But staffing problems remain, and the hospital is down several hundred nurses.

Ferniany said traveling nurses are being used to supplement staff and efforts are being made to prevent staff burnout, including counseling and additional compensation.

“We want the staff to feel appreciated,” he said.

Wilson said that, as of July 31, county testing site officials were told to issue provisional quarantine orders and information sheets to those testing positive for the virus. The quarantine order can be used for those who will miss work for the 14-day quarantine period.

Also, a problem with some labs not reporting testing results to the Alabama Department of Public Health has been resolved.