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As the worldwide spread of the coronavirus continues, the state's top health official is counseling awareness, not fear; face masks are selling out and even being stolen locally, and schools are coming up with online alternatives in case classes are canceled. 

“This is a situation that is changing very quickly,” said Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.

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 daily phone calls to check on the individuals and encouraging “social distancing,” avoiding large crowds and public places.

Harris last week sent the state’s universities and colleges letters with guidance about limiting public interactions for anyone returning from China or a country with active community transmission for at least 14 days. After China, the countries with the highest number of infected people reported to the World Health Organization as of Friday were South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan and Singapore. 

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 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019).

Harris said Alabamians should be aware of the developing situation, but “there is no need to be afraid, since we don’t have community transmissions in our state.”

Demand for masks

Even as health officials say masks should be worn by sick people to avoid exposure, but are of little benefit for healthy people trying to avoid the virus, they are in high demand locally.

“Cloth masks are not helpful in preventing the spread,” said Decatur Morgan Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Anita Walden. “To be effective, respiratory masks must be custom-fitted to each patient.”

She said the hospital has stopped putting masks at the entrances for guests to use when visiting patients.

“People were stealing them so we’ve had to stop,” she said. Walden said guests will receive one if they request it.

“Stay calm and wash your hands. Don’t panic,” Walden said. "We’ve never seen the kind of concern we’ve seen the last couple of weeks. Our logistics people in Huntsville have assured us that they have enough (masks) to take care of our needs.”

Edward Guice, owner/pharmacist of Guice Pharmacy in Decatur, said about a dozen people bought his entire supply of more than 500 masks in four days last week and he doesn’t know when a back order might arrive.

“There are no masks to be had,” he said.

Blake Gowen, co-owner/pharmacist at Payless Pharmacy in Decatur, said his store has been out of masks for about two weeks and he has to turn customers away daily. “We’ve tried to find masks from chemical suppliers, medical surgical suppliers, retail pharmacy suppliers,” he said. “Nobody has any.”

He said he is also selling more hand sanitizer, but supply is still solid.

A spokeswoman with Athens Pharmacy on Friday said the store had just received a new shipment of masks, but supplier prices rose about 15% to $14.39 for 20.

State officials prepare

Harris was in Washington, D.C., last 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,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield.

The ADPH’s preparations include training and planning at hospitals, which Harris said would be the front line of the response.

The ADPH has also worked with emergency responders on how to safely transport COVID-19 patients without putting others at risk.

Decatur schools' plan

At a work session last week, Superintendent Michael Douglas and school board members discussed providing internet access to students in case COVID-19 cases force Gov. Kay Ivey to close schools.

On Thursday afternoon, Decatur City Schools issued a statement for parents and guardians on precautions they should take dealing with COVID-19 and seasonal influenza.

“Be advised that the school system is currently updating our e-learning academic plan should it be necessary for implementation. We will continue to make every effort possible to reduce the spread of any and all viruses in the school facility,” Dwight Satterfield, deputy superintendent, said in the letter.

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 would 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 last 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.

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mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel. Mary Sell writes for Alabama Daily News. Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.

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