As the coronavirus spreads worldwide and the number of confirmed cases in the United States increases, the state’s top health official says Alabama is in a “prevention stance” and encourages Alabamians to prepare for this virus like they do the flu.
“This is a situation that is changing very quickly,” Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told Alabama Daily News on Thursday.
Since the outbreak was first reported in China in late 2019, the Alabama Department of Public Health has monitored more than 100 Alabamians who have returned from China and other places the virus is known to be, Harris said.
That monitoring includes making daily phone calls to check on the individuals and encouraging “social distancing,” avoiding large crowds and public places.
Harris this week sent the state’s universities and colleges letters with guidance about limiting for at least 14 days public interactions for anyone returning from China or any other country with active community transmission.
A few of the Alabamians being monitored have presented coronavirus symptoms, which are similar to flu symptoms, but no one has tested positive for the new disease, referred to as COVID-19.
Harris said Alabamians should be aware of the developing situation, “There is no need to be afraid, since we don’t have community transmissions in our state.”
Harris was in Washington, D.C., this week and said several meetings have focused on coronavirus.
“We have a plan (in Alabama) ready to implement if necessary to mitigate the coronavirus if we do get a case,” Harris said.
Other state agencies continue to track the potential impact on Alabama.
“Commerce is monitoring the impacts of the coronavirus on the supply chains of companies with Alabama operations,” Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield told Alabama Daily News.
The ADPH’s preparations include training and planning at hospitals, which Harris said would be the frontline of the response.
The ADPH has also worked with emergency responders on how to safely transport COVID-19 patients without putting others at risk.
Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said hospitals are prepared to isolate possible coronavirus patients.
Some hospitals have put up signage asking people who have symptoms and have traveled to countries where the virus is present to use specific hospital entrances.
“We’re trying to keep them from walking into a room full of people,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon said people’s first call if they have symptoms should be to their primary care doctor. If urgent medical care is needed, they should call ahead to the hospital so it can prepare.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital has an emergency management committee that anticipates possible situations that might affect the hospital, from severe weather, to mass injury situations, to infectious disease outbreaks, spokesman Bob Shepard said. It has developed plans to manage each of the potential situations and practice the plans on an ongoing basis.
“With the outbreak of coronavirus this winter in China, we have been able to quickly develop specific plans for dealing with a local outbreak, in the event that one occurs,” Shepard said. “Our Serious Infectious Disease Team, based in the Department of Emergency Medicine, is trained and prepared to respond to any of the newer emerging infectious diseases, including Ebola, MERS, SARS and now the novel coronavirus.”
The majority of people who have so far tested positive have had mild infections and no significant complications, Harris said.
The death rate in China has been more than 3%, but Harris said that doesn’t mean it’d be the same in the U.S.
“We hope that in a developed country like ours, it could be less,” he said.
Meanwhile, so far this influenza season, the CDC estimates between 29 million and 41 million people have gotten the flu and 16,000 to 41,000 people have died from it.
Like the flu, the coronavirus appears to be worse for those with weakened immune systems.
Harris said it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
“Anyone who (gets influenza now) is going to have to be ruled out for coronavirus,” he said.
Early this week, state leaders and Alabama’s congressional delegation pushed back against the possibility that the Federal Emergency Management Agency Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston would be considered to house coronavirus-positive passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said Vice President Mike Pence would oversee the country’s response to COVID-19.
Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers applauded that decision on Thursday.
“President Trump has already taken decisive action to keep our nation safe like declaring a public health emergency, restricting travel from China and mandatory quarantines. Just last weekend, President Trump personally stopped a flawed plan by HHS to house Americans exposed to COVID-19 at the CDP in Anniston, Alabama …
“The Trump administration on Monday sent Congress a supplemental budget request to further prepare for and fight against COVID-19. Now is not the time for petty politics. I hope congressional Democrats will step up and work with President Trump and Republicans on this effort.”
Asked about COVID-19 Thursday at the State House, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he “absolutely” thinks the state is prepared.
“I think we have an excellent health industry in this country,” Marsh said. “I believe we’ve got control of this thing. I really do. People seem to forget, we lose (tens of thousands of) people a year to flu. To my last count, we haven’t lost one to the coronavirus. I think we are on top of it, I think our health community is, I look forward to the day when everyone gets on a comfort level and we move forward because it’s been devastating on the economy just the thought of this thing. But I think we are in great shape with our medical community.”
Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.