Preparation urged even as Alabama remains free of coronavirus cases

Preparation urged even as Alabama remains free of coronavirus cases
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris speaks at a news conference on coronavirus as State School Board Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey looks on. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Officials with the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama Department of Education and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency spoke Tuesday to update residents about the state’s ongoing efforts in the fight against COVID-19, or coronavirus.

Alabama remains free of any officially confirmed cases of the respiratory disease, as of Tuesday. State School Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey opened the news conference by explicitly pointing out the lack of any cases, but added “that does not mean that we should not be prepared.”

Alabama is surrounded on all sides, except with Mississippi, by some of the nearly 40 states reporting positive or presumptive cases of the disease.

Mackey said he’s asking school districts to notify the state education department and local health departments of any students, faculty or staff members who have traveled overseas or to “hotspots” in the United States, and that if any of them begin to show flu-like symptoms, they should seek out help from medical providers and notify the state.

The superintendent is advising local superintendents not to allow students to travel overseas.

“It’s not necessarily just about catching the virus overseas, but we are seeking a rash of confinements overseas and quarantines," Mackey explained. "We feel like it’s just not a good situation for our students to be traveling overseas when there’s such a heightened alert.”

Mackey said ALSDE has response teams ready and plans in place, but couldn’t give any idea about how strong the response would be until there was an actual case to address. He could say that if a school has an outbreak, a decision on closing the school would be made in conjunction with the local system, the ALSDE, and ADPH.

“If there were a confirmed case with a student or a teacher or staff member... we would close that school for 24 to 48 hours and then assess the situation,” Mackey said. Based on the investigation, the state would then make a determination on whether to close the school for a longer period.

Address upcoming spring break plans, the superintendent said the state has currently only recommended canceling overseas travels, though he added local school systems can make other restrictions, if needed.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said ADPH has been in prevention and monitoring mode for two months. He said testing is now being done on a state level but confirmed fewer than 20 people have been tested since ADPH stood up its own testing laboratory on March 6. Harris added there are some private labs that are also doing testing.

Harris said the turnaround time on testing to result can be within a few hours to a day.

He said approximately 100 travelers who have returned to the state with possible exposure are being or have been monitored for any signs of the disease. “Most of those travelers that we have monitored that way have completed monitoring and thought not to have risk of the disease,” Harris said.

Harris also stressed that most people without symptoms don’t need to be tested, outside of those with chronic health problems and the elderly. He also urged schools and teachers to review their system’s emergency operations plans, to talk to children about hygiene and about covering their coughs and sneezes. Parents are urged to keep sick children home and to stay updated on the disease’s developments.

Alabama EMA Director Brian Hastings said looking at the data, no one should be surprised to see the number of cases double every four days. He knocked on the wooden podium and added that while Alabama doesn’t have any confirmed cases, “that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have a case in Alabama. What we’ve seen is that in the younger populations, they sometimes just have the sniffles, a cold, and they go about their business.”

Hastings said data is showing the coronavirus is impacting the elderly more than any other age group and urged everyone to be prepared ahead of any cases.

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