Dr. Scott Harris

Following Gov. Kay Ivey’s extension of the “Safer at Home” order last week, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris spoke exclusively with The Sun about the state’s ongoing battle with COVID-19.

While the economy and most businesses around the state have reopened, Harris said that news might have possibly given people the wrong idea.

“I think a lot of people have taken the wrong message that it must be okay and safe to get out and about but it’s really not,” Harris said. “The way to prevent this disease to stay six feet away or more from people. If you absolutely can’t do that then face coverings make sense and we want people to wash their hands regularly and do all of the other sanitization and hygiene practices, but really the only way to prevent it is to stay at home.”

While the “Safer at Home” order does not force the closure of any businesses and there is no state mandate for residents to remain at home, Harris said anyone that is able to stay at home should.

“The most important way to prevent this is by staying at home,” Harris emphasized. “We still have the ‘Safer at Home’ order in place, issued by the governor, and we encourage everyone to stay at home unless they absolutely have to leave their homes.”

A point of discussion all over the country – especially in Alabama – is about whether or not football will in fact go on as planned, and Harris was noncommittal on his opinion of the matter.

“I’d say that there is a lot of decisions that have to be made before that,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen next week, much less two months from now.

“There’s a whole lot of work that is being done at the national level and at the state level with colleges and high schools. So, there is a lot of preparation going on but we just have to see what the future looks like.”

Another point of discussion, in terms of football, is what attendance will look like, and Harris said that he is much more concerned about the crowds at games rather than the athletes on the field.

“I am probably more concerned about the crowds in the stands than I even am with the people participating on the field,” he said. “There are choke points – like where people enter into a stadium together – where there really is no choice but to be crowded together and when you have a full stadium that is certainly a fertile environment for infection to spread.

“It really just sort of depends on where we are. Right now our numbers have been going up substantially the last six or seven weeks and I hate to imagine what things will look like (by September) if they continue at this pace.”

Alabama has faced more than 11,000 new COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days but Coffee County and Dale County’s COVID-19 cases have remained relatively steady throughout the pandemic.

As of July 6, Coffee County has 394 confirmed cases of COVID-19 – with two confirmed deaths related to the disease – but 317 of those cases have recovered. According to Coffee County EMA Director James Brown, throughout the pandemic the county has seen roughly 10 percent of tests come back positive and around five new cases per day.

Dale County has just 299 total confirmed cases of the disease through the entire pandemic and no deaths, thus far with 93 confirmed cases in the last 14 days, as of July 6.

Despite those relatively positive numbers, Harris said that every area is still at risk of a hot spot popping up if precautions aren’t taken.

“I think one thing we’ve learned about this disease is that the water didn’t rise equally fast in all parts of the state,” he said. “Everyone’s experience is not the same and I think there are some places – especially in very rural parts of the state – where people just think this is something on television and don’t have any personal experience with it, and other parts of the state there are hospitals struggling to take care of the people in their community.

“The problem is that those counties that aren’t seeing it right now could potentially be under water tomorrow or next week depending on where the next hot spot occurs.”

Harris mentioned that the state has rolled out a new COVID-19 dashboard and map to keep residents informed and he encouraged everyone to get familiar with it.

“We just want people to be educated (on COVID-19),” Harris said. “We would strongly encourage people to take a look at it.”

Harris said that another concern facing the state and the nation is young people that may believe that they shouldn’t concerned with the disease.

“Younger people I think sometimes don’t appreciate the risk of this or many other issues,” Harris said. “A lot of things like automobile accidents, firearms trauma, sexually transmitted diseases and a number of other things are more common in young people because they perceive risk differently than older people.

“Sometimes I think younger people feel like they are bulletproof and don’t appreciate (the risk).”

The fact that many young people that contract COVID-19 don’t ever feel any adverse symptoms is something that Harris said health officials are battling in regards to educating people.

“What has been really challenging about this disease is that young people that get infected with COVID-19 usually don’t get as sick as older people or even the younger people that know others that have been sick they may not know anyone that has been very sick,” Harris continued. “So, they think this is no big deal and it doesn’t matter. What we hope people will realize is that we are all one community and we need to be responsible for older people in our family, church and work place.

“We are all going to be around people that are at higher risk and Alabama already isn’t a real healthy state to begin with. We have a lot of citizens with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and a lot of people that smoke, and these people are all at high risk for illness. We hope that young people realize that even if they get sick and do okay is they still have the risk of infecting someone that won’t be okay.”

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