Virus outbreak: State orders closures in 6 counties

DCH Regional Medical Center opened a drive through testing facility for the COVID-19, the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, in Tuscaloosa.

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MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama on Tuesday ordered the closure of day care and senior centers in six counties near the center of the the state's coronavirus outbreak and told restaurants in those counties to end on-site dining for the next week.

The order from the Alabama Department of Public Health applies to Jefferson County, which has the highest number of cases, and the surrounding counties of Tuscaloosa, Walker, Blount, St. Clair and Shelby. Alabama has 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus, 21 of them in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham.

Private schools, day care centers and preschools serving more than 12 students in those six counties should close from Wednesday until April 6, the state said. Restaurants in those counties can offer take-out and delivery but not on-site dining for the next week.

The state also ordered nursing homes to limit visitation in those counties except for extraordinary situations such as when a person is dying. State health officials said gatherings of 25 or more people are prohibited in the six counties where a 6-foot (1.8-meter) distance cannot be maintained.

The directive marks a significant increase in the number of closures ordered by the state.

“We have not taken these decisions lightly," State Health Officer Scott Harris said. “It's time for Alabamians to hunker down, to isolate themselves, to stay away from other people. It is time to stay out of the public as much as you can.”

Harris said people in Alabama's remaining counties are encouraged to follow the same recommendations. He said it is possible that the closures could eventually be ordered statewide.

“These measures taken by the Alabama Department of Public Health are out of an abundance of caution in order to contain the area where the most cases of the COVID-19 are present,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

A drive-thru coronavirus testing site set up at a church on U.S. 280 south of Birmingham had to be closed Tuesday after hundreds of vehicles snarled traffic on the heavily traveled highway. Officials hoped to reopen the operation on Wednesday.

The state is beginning to roll out more testing sites, in addition to those that had been offered by private groups. Harris said officials hoped to announce the opening of more sites this week, but the challenge has been obtaining the personal protective gear needed for health workers performing the tests.

For most people, the new coronavirus 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. Health officials are trying to limit the spread of the virus to avoid overwhelming the health system.

The state action on restaurants, day care centers and nursing homes follows a similar order by the Jefferson County health officer that pertained only to that county. Harris said it is possible that the county has the highest number of recorded cases because there has been more testing there. Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson cautioned on Monday that that the confirmed case numbers are an underrepresentation of the virus activity in the area.

The state's recommendation of avoiding gatherings of 25 is looser than the White House recommendation of avoiding gatherings of 10 or more.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, was asked about Alabama at a White House news conference.

“If someone wants to do 25, we are not going to fault them. But if someone wants to come to us and ask us what we think the best is, we stand by the numbers,” Fauci said.

Alabama had previously ordered all public schools closed until April 6.

Ivey said she was encouraged to see so many people voluntarily following social distancing practices recommended by health officials.

“We should not take precautionary measures for granted, but I encourage everyone to remember the old adage, ‘This too shall pass.’ Adhering to smart protocol and practicing a little patience will pull us through this,” Ivey said.

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