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Mask mandate extended: Experts cite decline in cases

The six-week extension of Alabama’s mask mandate met with support and criticism on Thursday, but local health officials are hoping residents will heed the call for protection.

“Recently, my wife shared with me that various medical professionals (physicians) were posting on social media platforms that we are all wasting our time by wearing masks and trying to social distance. In fact, one provider made the statement that ‘we were simply delaying the inevitable by wearing masks. Why not just get exposed and get it over with?’” said Rick Smith, CEO of Troy Regional Medical Center.

“Now, I am not a physician and certainly not an epidemiologist , but neither is this guy making these statements,” Smith said. “But I do read reports daily from the folks who really should know about this.

“His statement may be true. I realize we are all entitled to our own opinion and we may contract the virus at some point but there is a major flaw to this particular physician’s thought process and it is something I do know about. If we were all to simply ignore the experts’ guidelines and if many of us became infected with the Covid-19 virus, our healthcare system would become overwhelmed overnight.”

A decline in hospitalizations and cases is part of the reason Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced she is extending a statewide mask order.

The Republican governor said the mask order, which had been set to expire next week, will be extended another five weeks until Oct. 2. The governor also said she will keep in place other health orders, such as reducing occupancy in stores and limiting table seating in restaurants.

“Folks, I understand you don’t want to wear the mask. I don’t either,” Ivey said in a news conference at the Alabama Capitol.

“I wish we didn’t have to wear masks but we are seeing significant drops in our hospitalizations and daily positive COVID-19 numbers and I have no doubt this is a result of our mask order,” Ivey said. “When you wear a mask, you are protecting the people in your office, school, church and your vulnerable family and friends.”

The Republican governor has faced a mix of praise from health officials and criticism from some conservatives for the decision to issue the statewide mask order unlike some Southern governors.

State Health Officer Scott Harris said that with increased mask usage, the state has seen a corresponding drop in hospitalizations and the percentage of tests that are positive.

“We are cautiously optimistic about what we have been seeing recently,” Harris said.

The return of students to K-12 schools and university campuses, fall sports and the upcoming Labor Day holiday bring the risk of increased transmission if people don’t continue precautions, Harris said. The state saw a spike of cases follow the July Fourth holiday.

“Based on our experience with the Fourth of July and with Memorial Day, we certainly have some trepidation about what holiday gatherings could bring,” Harris said.

For his part, Smith said he knows firsthand that the census at TRMC fluctuates greatly depending on the adherence to the guidelines.

“Is it a coincidence that we saw an uptick in cases following Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and July 4th? I don’t think so,” he said. “So, what would we expect if we ignore the advice of the experts? ICU beds would be in short supply, staffing would be pushed to the max, critical supplies already in short supply would become more so. We know this virus is community spread and while herd immunity may indeed be a real possibility, I caution about following the opinion of some on social media.”

Ivey cautioned people to keep up precautions even during high school and college football games. Some city leaders had expressed concern about crowded bleachers at high schools games where few people seemed to be wearing masks.

“We should not be deceived that being vigilant against COVID-19 during the day ends when the football game begins,” Ivey said.

Smith echoed concerns that school and football will bring a spike in cases. “With schools starting again, what should we expect? Another swell in the number of cases for sure and I think many institutions are already seeing that occur,” he said. “As for me and the team providing care for our community here in Troy, we will continue to follow the 3 W’s: Wear your mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands.

It’s time to be serious and let’s help slow the spread of this virus. It may be with us for a long time to come.”

The governor also commended action by her former rival for the governor’s office, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Maddox, who was defeated by Ivey in the last gubernatorial race, ordered bars closed for two weeks in the face of rising COVID-19 cases on the campus of the University of Alabama.

The University of Alabama reported more than 500 COVID-19 cases since students returned. Maddox, in a news conference with U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, said it would have a devastating impact on Tuscaloosa’s economy if students are sent home for remote classes because of rising COVID-19 cases.

“Oh, and let’s don’t forget that thing called football,” Maddox said, saying keeping the season going is also important to the bars, hotels and restaurants in the city.

The state order requires people to wear coverings over their noses and mouths when interacting within 6 feet of people outside their household. Masks are also required in schools and colleges, where possible, for students in second grade and above.

The 14-day moving average of new cases was above 1,500 on July 24 and has been under 1,000 for the last week. The percent of tests returning as positive dropped from a high of 16.5% last month to 8% last week.

The U.S. surgeon general said last week in a visit to the state that Alabama remains in the “red zone” for COVID-19 spread, but numbers are headed in the right direction and praised the mask order.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 120,000 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 2,000 people have died, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health.