Confirmed cases of patients with Covid-19 pushed toward 600 as of Wednesday morning, while hospitalizations of patients with confirmed cases of Covid-19 have risen over the past two weeks, an increase that was expected after state health restrictions were eased over the past month.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 599 patients have tested positive in Lee County since the outbreak began in March, with 77 cases coming in the last 14 days. Twenty-four patients with confirmed cases were hospitalized at East Alabama Medical Center and EAMC-Lanier as of Tuesday afternoon. Hospitalizations rose to 27 last Thursday, after falling to 16 on May 28.
"This is a very critical time in the pandemic," said Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, infectious disease specialist at EAMC. "We need all of our community to help slow the spread of Covid-19."
The difficulty of containing the spread of the coronavirus has only been made more difficult by the politization of the topic, Maldonado added.
"The politization of Covid-19 has made the job of physicians, scientists, very hard, especially for infection prevention," he said. "It's extremely hard because people get confused so they lose trust.
"There's no question about it, it makes our jobs difficult, so it's just two fights we have to deal with — Covid-19 and also the politization of it."
One issue that has been politicized is the wearing of masks. The World Health Organization walked back a suggestion from one of its officials this week that asymptomatic transmissions were "very rare," an assertion that drew widespread criticism from experts worldwide and gave ammunition to those who say wearing masks in public is unnecessary. The WHO updated its guidelines in response, saying the public should wear masks.
That's also the stance of experts at EAMC, which said in a news release that while the hospital cannot specifically attribute the current increase in hospitalizations to people not wearing masks, they feel it likely contributed.
"There's a sense that it (Covid-19) has gone away, but it has not," said Dr. Michael Roberts, a hospitalist and EAMC's chief of staff. "We are definitely better off than we were eight weeks ago, but we've started seeing an increase in calls, tests and hospitalizations, and so we want to sound the alarm now before it gets any worse.
"Social distancing and wearing face coverings are two simple strategies supported by the CDC for preventing the spread of Covid-19. Having employees wear masks may prevent an employee without symptoms from spreading Covid-19 to a customer, and vice versa. Wearing a mask is a simple way to demonstrate to those around you that you care about their well-being."
People shouldn't be "fiddling with the mask, either, like touching it back and forth, back and forth," Maldonado said.
"That defeats the purpose of wearing a mask," he said. "I think definitely Covid-19 is teaching us, unfortunately, how we have to live our life from now on. This is not going anywhere; we went from a sprint to a marathon, basically, and we have to keep thinking that we have to protect ourselves. And we're not just protecting ourselves; we're protecting others, too.
"At EAMC, we have been very successful avoiding Covid-19 infection among health care workers. Do you know why? Because face masks, eye protection, surface cleaning and obsessive hand hygiene works. If it worked inside the hospital, it will also work outside the hospital."
One of the main reasons to wear a mask is to help reduce the virus' transmission rate, or "R-naught."
"The R-naught is the rate of transmissibility of the virus," said Maldonado. "For example, just to compare one to the other. Measles has the highest R-naught. You can infect over 10 people; one patient can infect 10 to 20 people with measles. Covid-19 is about three or so. Anything above one is dangerous."
EAMC has ramped up its testing capability, securing equipment and supplies to test for Covid-19 in-house. Results are now averaging a turnaround time of 24 hours.
“Having the results so much faster than before makes a big difference for everyone,” said Brooke Bailey, EAMC's infection prevention director.
If you display any symptoms of Covid-19 — fever, persistent cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell —or believe you might have been exposed to the coronavirus, call EAMC's hotline at 334-528-SICK for screening. Hotline hours run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It's extremely important to get tested at the first signs of infection, said Maldonado.
"I think when you lose your taste and your smell, that's a very important symptom of Covid-19 infection," he said. "Of course, fevers and coughs are also very important. So people need to keep calling the SICK line or calling and talking to their primary physicians because we want to know when those patients get infected so we can once again apply what we know about this infection."