By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Department of Public Health on Thursday prohibited any gatherings involving 25 or more people, closed state beaches and child care facilities, prohibited on-site dining in restaurants and canceled non-emergency medical procedures.
Gov. Kay Ivey said the order, effective through April 5, is the best way to contain the spread of the coronavirus and to stop a possible surge on Alabama hospitals and medical resources.
“Despite our best efforts, the threat of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread and, unfortunately, we have not yet reached peak impact,” Ivey said in a statement. “While I am pleased that many of our citizens are self-regulating and are practicing social distancing, we want to ensure that Alabama is doing our part to flatten the curve.”
Late Thursday, Ivey said her office and the Department of Public Health would offer further clarity on the 25-person rule for public gatherings and how it would be applied in business environments.
As of Thursday afternoon, 77 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed statewide, up 27 cases from a day earlier. Jefferson County had the most cases at 34, followed by Lee County at 10, Shelby County at 9, Madison and Elmore Counties at 5, Tuscaloosa County at 4 and Montgomery County at 3. Baldwin, Calhoun, Chambers, Limestone, Talladega and Walker Counties reported 1 case each.
So far, in the U.S., 10,442 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed and 150 deaths are attributed to the disease, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For most people, the highly-contagious virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Reports show that some states with large amounts of cases are struggling to provide enough ventilators, which are needed to treat advanced COVID-19 patients.
Donald Williamson, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association, on Thursday said there are 1,344 ventilators statewide and that he anticipates the need to increase that number over the next few weeks.
“I would expect and I would not be surprised if in the coming days we see isolated incidents where we need to find ventilators to move ventilators in. And then my big concern is that as the tsunami approaches us in the coming weeks. We are going to be challenged to have enough ventilators for the state at large,” Williamson said.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said he knows the new restrictions will make life increasingly difficult for many Alabamians, but his top concern slowing the spread of infection.
“We will know sometime down the road if we got this right or not,” Harris said. “If we have a large number of cases that appear in our state, I think we’ll wish we had done something sooner. If we have no cases in the state, we’ll look like we overreacted, but I think this is the safest course.”
Restaurants can still provide take-out or delivery. The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Wednesday approved an emergency rule allowing sealed alcoholic beverages to be sold by curbside pickup. All patrons and restaurant workers are asked to maintain six feet of distance from each other to limit exposure.
Beaches were to close at 5 p.m. on Thursday, including any private or publicly owned sandy shoreline that abuts the Gulf of Mexico.
During a news conference Thursday streamed by web and satellite across the state, Harris implored the people of Alabama to take this virus seriously and to pay attention to the social distancing guidelines.
“Please pay attention to this,” Harris said. “Please take this seriously. This virus is serious and can kill.”
Preschools and child care centers are to cease operations beginning at the close of business on Thursday. The order does not apply to licensed child care centers that provide services exclusively to employees with state and local governments, first responders, law enforcement, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies and grocery stores.
All hospitals and nursing homes or long-term care facilities are ordered to prohibit all non-essential visitors, except for health care personnel and certain compassionate care situations, such as end-of-life care.
All elective dental and medical procedures are to be delayed effective immediately as well. Physicians offices can still remain open but are told to only provide service in emergency situations.
Harris said that since these health orders are enforceable by law, those caught breaking them are subject to a misdemeanor charge and possible fines.
Harris said it is likely that these health orders could stay in place well after April 5.
“I think it’s certainly possible that this could be extended based on what we’ve seen in other parts of the country, and other parts of the world. In fact, I think it is likely, but we don’t want to make that determination yet,” Harris said.