Both Morgan County and the state had their second-highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday, and the state’s death toll as reported Wednesday was the highest since the pandemic began.
“We’re going backward. This is what happens when we let down our guard,” said Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District.
The ADPH on Wednesday reported 87 new infections among Morgan County residents. The only day in which more infections were reported in the county was Oct. 30, when the agency reported 120 new cases. The top three daily counts in the county have all been within the last two weeks, and ADPH has reported an average of 56 new Morgan County cases per day over the last week. Forty-one Morgan residents have died of the disease.
While ADPH’s confirmation of COVID-19 deaths is not immediate — some of the deaths reported Wednesday were from days or weeks ago — the 68 confirmed and 13 probable cases reported Wednesday was well above the previous peak of 57 cases reported July 22.
ADPH also reported 2,070 new COVID-19 cases statewide Wednesday, second only to July 9 when 2,164 new cases were reported. In eight of the last 10 days, hospitals have reported more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients statewide, including 1,171 on Wednesday.
In Morgan County, the Sheriff’s Office announced the closure of its administrative offices Wednesday after two administrative staff and one deputy tested positive with the virus, according to spokesman Mike Swafford. The offices will reopen Monday after being disinfected. About half of the city of Decatur’s Community Development Department was off Tuesday after having either tested positive or been exposed to someone who had, according to Chief Code Enforcement Officer David Lee.
Smith said a collective relaxation of masking and social distancing likely accounts for the dramatic upswing in cases locally.
“The alarm has gone off, and we can’t punch the snooze button anymore. It’s critical that we do something because the hospitals are being inundated,” she said.
Decatur Morgan Hospital on Wednesday had 33 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. Eight of the hospital’s 19 intensive care rooms were occupied by COVID-19 patients, including five on ventilators. The hospital is scrambling to set up a COVID unit at the Parkway campus in time to deal with the expected increase in hospitalizations that invariably comes a couple of weeks after an increase in new infections. Originally planned for a Nov. 1 opening, Chief Nursing Officer Anita Walden said she now hopes for a “soft opening” around Nov. 23.
“This has taken a toll on our staff,” Walden said. “Not only are they weary, but some are testing positive as well. … (They) are getting it from their children.”
As of Monday, she said, 16 employees were off work after testing positive for the virus and another 26 were in quarantine.
The average age of COVID-19 patients at Decatur Morgan Hospital as of Monday was 62, with an age range from 40 to 92, Walden said.
She said statewide, about 49% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients end up in intensive care, and 40% of those require a ventilator.
“That really taxes our ICU beds throughout the state and it’s really had a huge impact on us at the hospital,” she said.
Over the last two weeks, 29% of those Morgan County residents who have been tested for the coronavirus have been infected.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said the surge in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Alabama is stemming from people being less cautious.
“Unfortunately the virus has probably taken advantage of our cold weather and our getting inside, getting closer together, people being back in school and people being together for various things and gatherings, and unfortunately not wearing masks, which is a really, really big problem,” she said Wednesday.
Marrazzo said she understands the difficult balance state officials must make between the economy and public health, but she has some concerns with the loosening of restrictions on restaurants, fitness centers and retailers announced Nov. 5.
“I would feel better about that happening if our numbers were declining. Unfortunately, we’re loosening those restrictions just as those (infection) trends … have been going up,” she said.
Health care workers are seeing an increasing number of people who have been infected twice by the new coronavirus, which Marrazzo said is not surprising because infections from other types of coronavirus — such as those that cause the common cold — do not create long-term immunity.
“I don’t think the natural immunity to these infections is particularly long-lasting,” she said.
Typically, reinfections happen at least three months after the initial infection, “which makes sense because probably your antibody doesn’t last past three or four months.”
She said there is some evidence that subsequent infections are not as severe.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t transmit it. So even if you don’t have a bad infection the second time, you’re still able to give it to somebody who may have a bad infection the first time,” she said.
Marrazzo said some COVID-19 survivors have long-term issues.
“This is a disease that does affect the blood vessels, and it definitely can precipitate strokes, for the very reasons probably that it precipitates pulmonary embolism or clots in the lung and heart attacks — clots in the coronary arteries,” she said.
Psychiatric problems in COVID-19 survivors can stem from strokes or from the brain being deprived of oxygen, as well as from the anxiety of having a severe illness, she said.