Dr. Michael Saag with the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases said at a Friday press conference that Alabama residents should treat the fight against COVID-19 like it’s a real war.
“We’re on a tour of duty right now, and we know our tour of duty ends by Thanksgiving next year. So what can we do to stay as healthy and, frankly, stay alive and survive this tour of duty and get home safe?” Saag asked.
Jefferson County, like much of the state, is seeing a “staggering” number of new COVID-19 cases, said Saag. Health experts say the county is averaging more than 300 new cases each day; that’s three times the daily rate from September. Since March, Jefferson County has recorded about 30,000 cases and nearly 500 deaths related to the virus.
“We’re not in a surge, we’re in a spike,” Saag said. “What we didn’t anticipate was this spike before Thanksgiving … I’m afraid if we don’t change a little bit of what we’re going to do together – that spike will have a spike on top of it.”
Saag said the best thing to do is minimize gatherings of more than five people, and wear a mask – even around loved ones. He recommended that residents continue to be vigilant by paying close attention to hygiene and hand-washing, and suggested families modify their behavior during the upcoming holiday season.
“I’ve gotten comments from a lot of you who have said ‘how can you tell me what to do on my Thanksgiving and in my home?’ I’m really not telling you what to do,” Saag said. “I’m simply saying that we know … what works in terms of protecting ourselves. And in my mind, since we’re on this tour of duty together, I’d like to see us all make it to next Thanksgiving.”
The number of hospitalizations continues to rise throughout the county; in response, hospitals are activating COVID-19 surge-response plans.
Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-chair of UAB’s Emergency Management Committee, said nearly 300 people in the county are currently hospitalized because of the virus – 100 are at UAB. She said if the situation does not improve, services for non-life-threatening medical procedures will be cut back.
“It’s something that all the hospitals in town have been talking about and it’s something we don’t want to do,” Nafziger said. “But if we continue down the path we’re on right now where we have unchecked disease transmission – that’s what we’ll be forced to do in the future.”
Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said contact tracing shows that most of the new cases result from small gatherings. He cited research from the Georgia Institute of Technology that has studied rates of transmission in Jefferson County.
“If 10 people gather, there’s a one-in-five chance that one of those persons can spread COVID-19,” said Wilson. “Fifteen people gathering, that’s one-in-four who can spread the virus. If there’s a large gathering of 50 people, there’s a two-out-of-three chance that one of the people in that group is going to spread COVID-19.”
Wilson said there is some good news: under an emergency use authorization, Alabama is expected to receive its first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine in December. But the vaccine supply will be “very limited” and will go to frontline workers and “some” first responders, he added.
Dr. Saag said the average civilian should not expect to receive a vaccine until next year: “For enough people in our community to be vaccinated, we’re talking end of the summer .”
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This post has been updated to change “Georgia Tech” to “Georgia Institute of Technology.”