By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama is continuing its recent progress in limiting the spread of the coronavirus with promising trends in new transmissions and hospitalizations.
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Thursday reported 699 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the seven-day average of new cases to 855. That’s down significantly from the peak of the seven-day average of 1,846 on July 20.
Hospitals around the state reported 1,105 COVID-19 patients Thursday, the lowest total in more than a month, according to ADPH. Statewide hospitalizations peaked at 1,613 on August 5.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham and ADPH this month initiated a statewide COVID-19 testing and monitoring platform for college students called GuideSafe, which began administering tests on Aug. 4. The platform has tested around 75,000 students as of Thursday and found a positivity rate of 0.75%.
Executive Director of GuideSafe’s entry testing program, Bob Phillips, said during a press conference on Thursday thousands of other students have been tested outside of the GuideSafe program and that he did not know the number of tests or rate of positivity with those tests.
Now schools will transition to random or sentinel testing on campus in order to track the spread of the virus and to look out for hot spots that may appear.
“We’re looking for a weekly assessment and if we start seeing and sense an outbreak then the testing will be ramped up accordingly,” Dr. Mike Saag, the director of UAB’s division of infectious diseases, said at a Thursday press briefing.
The low positivity rate for colleges is a good sign as students start getting back to campuses, but as images of large crowds in Tuscaloosa and Auburn emerged this week, Saag is stressing students’ personal responsibility in curving the spread of the virus.
“At the end of the day, this is really up to the students doing their part,” Saag said. “The institutions can provide guidance and can provide influence on what students do but they can’t control what students do.”
Some of the nation’s largest universities like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved to online classes only within their first week of reopening.
Saag said that each college will have to determine at what point they would also stop in-person classes, including their capacity to handle quarantining students on its campus and their comfortability in seeing an increase in cases in or around campus.
“If the students want to make sure that they continue with their college experience as we all want it to be, they are going to have to take ownership of this and be accountability and do the things they are being asked to do especially if it’s in social situations,” Saag said.
Saag also commented on the Southeastern Conference fan health and safety guidelines released this week, saying they line up with most other guidelines released for reducing COVID-19 spread.
He said campuses will have to pay attention to the flow of fans coming in and out of stadiums and that all fans must practice social distancing, proper hand washing and wear face masks at all times.
“One thing that is consistent across these guidelines is that there will be a whole lot fewer people allowed into the games,” Saag said. “My guess is that for most school is that its going to be around 20 % capacity [in the stadiums].”
UAB also developed the GuideSafe multitool platform that includes the health check COVID-19 symptoms app, an exposure notification app and an event passport app that all students are encouraged to download and use.
The GuideSafe anonymous exposure notification app is now available for public use and health officials are encouraging Alabamians to download the free app which will automatically notify them if a person has been near a fellow app user who has tested positive.
Curt Carver, UAB’s Chief Information Officer gave an update on Thursday on how many students had downloaded the GuideSafe app, saying after the initial press release they saw 20,000 downloads and have continued to see a rise.
“We’re happy with where that is and we’re going to see a lot more downloads as it continues to expand,” Carver said.
Phillips urged students to take advantage of the entry testing program if they haven’t already and said participation in the upcoming sentinel testing will be vital to keeping campuses open.
“The more data points we have, the better informed each of our campuses can be in how to manage this,” Phillips said.