In a Wednesday Zoom conference call, Fort Payne Superintendent Brian Jett said he plans to send a letter to parents this week announcing the masking requirement will be extended for four more weeks.
Jett said 62 out of 3,500 students and seven out of 400 faculty or staff members are now clinically diagnosed with COVID-19. The number of students infected at one time has been as high as 77 and as low as 24, he said.
“I feel as if we are doing a really good job so far with a difficult situation, and I feel good about our masking measures. The heating and cooling in all of our facilities, ionization is supposed to be killing viruses or bacteria passing through it. I think that’s working well because our numbers for the flu are usually high but have been down,” Jett said, adding that face-to-face is the best form of instruction for a child, especially in younger grades.
Jett said he is grateful local school boards get to make their determinations based on their situations.
“We can monitor things a little bit closer and if things start to get better quicker, we would be able to lift that mask requirement a whole lot quicker than the state probably could,” Jett said. “I just think you’ve got to listen to your local healthcare providers and community. Ninety-five percent of the people I’ve talked to have been very appreciative. Not that they like the masking, but they understood so they were good with it. Hopefully at the end of those four weeks, the numbers [of COVID cases] will come down and we’ll get to do something different.”
He made the comments to a group that included the Fort Payne and Rainsville Chambers of Commerce, with Alabama House Majority Leader Sen. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and
State Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, joined by Carolyn Bern, director of Governmental Affairs and Community Relations for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Ledbetter said the epidemic has gotten so bad that he gets “a bad feeling in my stomach when I wake up waiting to hear the next bad news. There are several people I personally know who have passed away from this. We’ve got to really concentrate on getting people vaccinated. Our worst enemy appears to be social media. [Livingston] and I got to meet with the CEO of Huntsville Hospital yesterday and he said it’s ‘kinda strange because when someone is suffering from cancer, they say ‘do whatever you’ve got to, it doesn’t matter what’s in the treatment, just get me better.’ But when they ask about the vaccine, they don’t want to take it. I don’t know why that stigma is there. Of the millions and millions of doses given, nothing has shown up. Knowing the number of families in DeKalb County that’s been affected and lost people they love, let’s encourage people to get vaccinated.”
Ledbetter added, “This is a tough situation and we’re in it together. We’ve got to get past it. I got a call yesterday from a group called ‘Unmask our Kids’ so as a parent and a grandparent, I hate to see politics get involved in what should be the medical field. I hope we keep that in mind and do what’s right for our kids.”
Bern shared that among Alabama COVID cases in the last four weeks, 18.5% involved children between the ages of five and 17. In the same time period, 3,871 children ages zero to four years have been confirmed to have COVID. Between the ages of five to 11 years, they’ve seen 8,559 confirmed with it. For the 12-17 age bracket, there have been 10,759 cases. The total number of cases for children under 18 was 23,190 in that four-week period.
“We are seeing significant levels of the Delta variant in children,” Bern said “We strongly recommend masks be worn because it is a highly contagious communicable respiratory illness. This is the reason why masks are so important. School boards and school leaders are doing an amazing job keeping kids safe, but they can’t control what happens after school when a child goes home and may be exposed to someone there who has COVID that the school doesn’t necessarily know about. That’s where we are seeing a lot of the community transmission come back into the schools.”
Area Administrator Mary Gomillion said the number of vaccinations have risen in the last couple of weeks so it is trending in a positive direction.
As a state, Alabama faced community transmission rate (the combined number of new cases per 100,000 persons and a percentage of positive tests during the past seven days) of 22% as of Tuesday. In DeKalb County, this number was 27.5%. For perspective, their goal is to keep it under 5%. She said the 77 deaths since the start of the year “significant.” Addressing “breakthrough cases” where people catch COVID despite being vaccinated against it, she said this figure is at 1.9% statewide.
“It’s a very difficult situation to keep everyone safe in a learning environment. We are very lucky to have an FDA-approved vaccine and this golden monoclonal antibody treatment. Usually, if someone is vaccinated, they’re not as ill if they do catch COVID and typically avoid hospitalization unless they have other health issues going on,” Bern said.
Bern said ADPH typically sees roughly 4,000 cases of communicable diseases each year, including illnesses like tuberculosis, the measles or the mumps.
“We are experiencing that in a day,” she said. “We’ve had over 600,000 cases in Alabama, so the scope of this is like nothing we’ve seen before. We appreciate everyone’s efforts to try and minimize this impact of this 100-year experience we’re in.”
She said efforts to deal with Alabama’s shortage of hospital personnel have been impacted by Hurricane Ida and the situation in Afghanistan. If people do not get vaccinated, these stresses on the hospital system will continue and may affect the availability of treatment for things like heart attacks. This week the state’s hospitals faced a deficit of 71 beds needed in ICU units.
DeKalb County Economic Development Director Jimmy Durham said his office and the Chambers are putting together a messaging campaign to encourage more vaccinations countywide.
A list of vaccine distribution sites and monoclonal antibody therapy locations can be found on ADPH’s COVID-19 dashboard at https://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/index.html.