UAB Doctor Warns of COVID-19 Surge, Urges Precautions as Flu Season Starts

Dr. Rachael Lee. Source: UAB

COVID-19 cases in Alabama are surging just as Birmingham sees its first few flu cases, UAB epidemiologist Rachael Lee said Friday.

The rise in the number of COVID-19 infections mirrors trends across most of the country, Lee told reporters. She urged people to continue to wash their hands, wear masks and maintain social distancing — measures that reduce the spread of both COVID-19 and influenza. Lee also recommended getting the flu vaccine since UAB has already diagnosed several patients with the flu.

“Places like Chile and Australia who just had their flu season had very, very low numbers because they were following all of these other COVID-19 mitigation strategies. So I’m hopeful that that, in addition to the flu vaccine, will really protect our community from seeing a surge,” Lee said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 3,852 new COVID-19 cases Friday, but that included 2,565 cases that a laboratory in Mobile reported on Thursday for a period of several months, the agency said.

In many counties, at least 14% of individuals tested for the coronavirus are showing positive, suggesting high rates of infection. Generally, scientists recommend aiming for a test positivity rate below 3%. Statewide, ADPH reported a positivity rate of 8.3% for the week that ended Oct. 17.

Also, the average number of new cases per day statewode climbed on Thursday to 1,078, the highest since Sept. 17.

The rise in cases is likely a result of people dropping precautionary measures due to fatigue with COVID-19, according to Lee. She also pointed to an increase in indoor gatherings as a possible reason for the surge.

“We are all exhausted from COVID-19. We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard. We miss our friends, We want to make sure that we can connect with them again,” Lee said. “We’re not watching our mask wearing and watching our distance like we have been.”

The upcoming holiday season could lead to an uptick in cases, and Alabamians should look for ways to reduce the risk of getting sick, Lee said. She suggested connecting with loved ones virtually or holding gatherings outside.

People looking to celebrate Halloween should continue to wash their hands frequently and watch their distance. Lee said people should avoid wearing cloth masks and rubber Halloween masks — which have not been approved by the CDC for masking — at the same time to avoid oxygen-intake issues. She added that people can more safely distribute candy if they use creative strategies such as sending treats down PVC pipes or placing them at the end of a table.

“I think that we can really reduce the risks that we would see with Halloween, while still having fun,” Lee said.

UAB on Friday had 66 patients with COVID-19 in its hospitals. Lee said the university has been closely monitoring the rise in cases and has created plans in case it needs to accommodate more patients.

The university is also researching possible COVID-19 treatments. Some of its scientists have helped spearhead research associated with the antiviral drug remdesivir, which the FDA approved on Thursday for treatment for COVID-19. Remdesivir is the first approved COVID-19 drug and has been shown to improve outcomes for moderate to severe cases.

UAB is conducting trials for other inpatient and outpatient treatments.

“It’s been incredible — just the amount of work (and) being able to get these patients on medication early,” Lee said. “I really am very proud to be part of the infectious diseases division here because of all the wonderful work that we have done in researching COVID-19.”