A graduating Austin High senior who attended commencement last Thursday has tested positive for COVID-19, and an Alabama Department of Public Health official said everyone who attended should self-isolate until June 3.
Dwight Satterfield, deputy superintendent of school safety and student services, said a family member of the student tested positive May 4, and the graduating senior was tested shortly before the commencement. The results came back positive for COVID-19 after the event.
"They didn't tell us, even though we screened, took temperatures, asked if anybody had been exposed to anyone or were in the testing protocol, asked if they had any symptoms. They didn't let us know," Satterfield said Wednesday afternoon.
Satterfield said 1,400 people attended the graduation ceremony.
“Would the recommendation be isolation for all of them? Absolutely,” said Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District. “That is the risk you take when you’re in a large crowd and there’s a congregate gathering, which is what this is.
“Our recommendation to people who were there is that they isolate themselves, so they don’t expose others, for at least a two-week period of time from the date of that graduation.”
On Tuesday, ADPH reported 28 new cases of COVID-19 in Morgan County, the most in one day since testing began. The next highest daily count for Morgan County, 14, was on Monday. As of Wednesday evening, an additional seven Morgan County residents had tested positive, bringing the total to 211.
Decatur Morgan Hospital had four COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday afternoon, according to a hospital official.
Wayne Farms cases
Wayne Farms, which employs 1,982 in its Decatur plants, has 13 workers with confirmed COVID-19 cases, up from one confirmed case a week ago, according to spokesman Frank Singleton. He said “less than 1%” of the Decatur employees are off work awaiting test results, and “less than 1% (are) out because of either confirmed contacts or self-isolating with illness not confirmed as COVID.”
He said the plant has employees who reside in several counties other than Morgan.
Satterfield said DCS heard a rumor about the Austin senior's positive test Tuesday and confirmed it with the family and the ADPH on Wednesday. Privacy laws prevent him from identifying the student who tested positive.
Satterfield said numerous safety precautions were taken at the ceremony, including temperature checks for all who entered, social distancing and sanitation. Each graduating senior was provided a ticket that allowed four people to enter the stadium, and those groups were seated separately.
"I feel like we had safety protocols in place, and I feel like 95% or higher of our attendees were more than compliant. In this case, it would have been good to know that we had a known positive test with an immediate family member and that we had a student in the testing protocol," Satterfield said. "When that information was not revealed to us, there's really nothing we could do."
Smith said the risk of exposure is greatest for any attendees who did not wear masks or face coverings during the event, or who failed to maintain a distance of 6 feet from people of other households.
“The good news in all this, if there is good news, is the graduation was roughly five days ago, so we would expect people who were going to develop symptoms to have them within the next few days,” Smith said.
Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB Hospital, on Wednesday said 97% of people who develop symptoms after becoming infected do so within seven days. Initial symptoms, she said, typically include “headache, nausea, diarrhea and maybe some low-grade fever, and then the cough comes after that.”
Smith said it usually takes 10-12 days before ADPH’s count of confirmed COVID-19 cases reflects an exposure event. She said most experience symptoms within seven days, they sometimes delay testing beyond that, and then it takes a couple of days to get the test results back.
“Are we concerned about it? Yes, we are,” Smith said. “We’re also concerned about a week and a half from now when we get the aftermath of any Memorial Day and other graduation activities.”
That has Lee concerned too, especially because it coincides so closely with the dramatic relaxation of the “safer at home” emergency health order May 11.
New cases per day have been increasing statewide since the stringent stay-at-home order expired April 30, with the seven highest daily case counts since testing began coming in the last nine days. The highest number of new cases, according to ADPH calculations, was 639 on Monday. The next highest was 593, on Tuesday. Before that, the highest had been 403, last Thursday.
About a third of the 16,032 cases confirmed since testing began in the state have been in the last 14 days, including 382 new cases reported Wednesday.
“This increase that we’re seeing is concerning to me, and part of that may be because of relaxing some restrictions. Part of it may be not wearing masks in public or having major events, which is what we would be concerned about for Memorial Day weekend,” Lee said. “…It’s concerning to us as infectious disease experts as we see this continuing upward trend.”
That trend may not end soon.
“My concerns after Memorial Day weekend, where we had looser restrictions, is that we’ll continue to see a rise in cases. If we aren’t careful, that can overrun our health care system,” Lee said.
Lee said expectations that the coronavirus will subside over the summer due to higher temperatures or ultraviolet light may not be realistic.
“I don’t think we can say that based on a recent study that saw, from a geographical standpoint, even places that have higher temperatures, they are still having cases of COVID-19. I think that has a lot to do with our lack of immunity. We need to be prepared,” Lee said.
Smith said the local health department has already received several calls related to Austin's graduation ceremony. She said those who can’t obtain a test through a health provider can contact the Morgan County Health Department. She said additional time slots for testing will be added if necessary.
“Basically we have folks who attended something that has the potential to expose them,” Smith said. “They in turn have the potential to get the COVID virus and to pass it on to other people that they are in contact with.”
All public high schools in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties held graduation ceremonies over the last two weeks, and DCS had the most restrictive precautions in place.
Lee stressed that, unlike the flu, people who have not developed COVID-19 symptoms can infect others.
“We are dealing with a pathogen that we can’t see," she said. "It’s not like someone who has influenza, where they feel terrible and they’re coughing and they stay home for the vast majority of cases. We have a lot of people who start out being asymptomatic, but then continue to spread (the virus). That’s a lot harder to stop in its tracks compared to the influenza.”