At approximately 136 new cases per 100,000 people in Jackson County — roughly 95 new cases per day — the county has become a hotspot within Alabama for COVID-19 as test positivity and daily infection rates have significantly increased in the last seven days.
Cases are likely to continue to rise as the winter months continue. The county has added 355 cases in the first four days of December — almost 300 more cases than had been added by that time in November. The time in which cases are expected to double has also drastically increased to a little over one month.
The county's test positivity rate has shot up even further to over 50%, one of the highest in the state of Alabama and 45% higher than is considered effective testing.
Jackson County is one of only four of Alabama's 67 counties where more than half of all coronavirus tests return positive.
This means that the public officials lack sufficient data to track the spread of the virus or to get a real understanding of how many people in the county are actually infected with COVID-19.
Testing is considered vital for officials to understand spread of COVID-19 according to both the CDC and World Health Organization — the recommended threshold is 5% of tests returning positive results.
At Highlands Medical Center, Wendi Raeuchle, director of marketing, said the hospital currently has seven COVID positive patients, all in the intensive care unit.
“The number of COVID positive inpatients has been consistently high for the last six weeks or so, with a slight drop for a few days about two weeks ago,” she said.
According to doctors at UAB Medical Center, this is not the post-Thanksgiving wave yet.
"Now we’re going into the holiday season and we could really be in a situation in the next two to three weeks that compromises our ability to provide health care" said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo during an online press conference. She added that while UAB has avoided utilizing non-medical terminology to avoid panic, she feels that a potential "tidal wave" of cases is imminent.
This increase of cases around the holiday season began before Thanksgiving. With officials at the Alabama Department of Public Health warning about drastic case increases and noting a dangerous trend pre-Thanksgiving.
Raeuchle said all hospitals in North Alabama have been experiencing a surge for the last few weeks.
The surge will likely continue on as many of those who tested positive from exposure over the Thanksgiving holiday have not begun to need care,” she said. “The lag time between testing positive and needing medical care can be as much as two weeks.”
Alabama's Coronavirus cases had seemingly plateaued during July and August, until spiking again in mid-November and reaching record high numbers shortly before Thanksgiving. Daily highs for case new cases and deaths were each set around the holiday — a new case high of 96 on Nov. 24 and a new death high was set in early December.
"The spread of the virus has resulted in the greatest increases in hospitalizations since July, and for the past six weeks there have been at least 1,000 new cases per day. In July, Alabama hospitals were at maximum capacity," read a statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health on Nov. 23.
Since then, hospitalizations have continued to rise in the state to record highs across the state, while testing has not kept pace.
In the latter months of 2020, Alabama and other southern states have become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and legislators in the state have done little to address the issues associated with this rise in cases.
Recently as cases continue to rise in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened restrictions in the Safer-at-home order and signaled through a tweet that she was not willing to implement a second lockdown in Alabama to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Officials at the CDC expect that deaths from Coronavirus in the United States are likely to exceed 400,000 by February, and a vaccine is unlikely to widely available until after Christmas.
Raeuchle said while Highlands has adequate staffing to care for patients, the hospital is actively recruiting nursing staff (RNs, LPNs and CNAs) to help alleviate the strain and fatigue on the current staff.
“Any qualified candidates, including those recently retired in the last two years or travel nurses in our area, who are interested in full time or part time employment should complete an application online at www.highlandsmedcenter.com in the careers section at the top right of the page,” she said.
Raeuchle said community support is always appreciated and helps to keep the staff energized and feeling cared for by the community. Anyone or group interested in donating food, masks or other items, reach out to Norma Stockman at 256-218-3782 to coordinate.