Exclusive: State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris talks COVID-19, nursing homes, schools, and face coverings

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DOTHAN, Ala. (WDHN) — As Alabama deals with over thirty thousand cases of coronavirus, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris stressed increasing rate of disease transmission.

“The increase in the numbers we’re seeing is not explained by an increase in testing,” Harris said. “It’s caused by the number of disease transmission events that are going on in the state. We’re seeing large numbers of cases that are rising sometimes in work places or in skilled nursing facilities. But sometimes there just seems to be community transmission going on.”

Montgomery’s mayor issued an executive order last week, requiring residents to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the virus. According to Harris, local officials should continue discussing safety measures.

“I commend the mayor for doing that here in Montgomery,” Harris said. “I think local officials are going to need to make that determination. We’re trying very hard to get them the information they need to understand the amount of disease transmission that is going on in our state. And even though the smaller counties may not see absolutely large numbers of patients, the rates are very concerning and I think many public officials need to consider whether face coverings or other types of measures ought to be enacted.”

The vast majority of deaths in Alabama are older residents, particularly those in nursing homes. Harris said that is why his team is working to stop the spread in those facilities.

“We work very closely with the nursing homes to make sure that they have stringent infection control measures in place.” Harris said. “Many nursing homes, if not all, are doing testing or at least symptom reviews for all their staff and all the people who are coming in and out of the building to make sure no one who’s sick comes into the building. The nursing home association is working with us and with all the facilities in the state to enable testing of residents in the state as well as of staff. Visitation continues to be limited in these facilities and and we know that’s a hardship on people. We certainly don’t like the fact that people aren’t able to see their loved ones and have been separated from them now for a few months. We hope we can make some arrangements soon so that visitation can resume in some form, but unfortunately right now, it’s still very unsafe to our nursing home residents to have visitors coming in and out of the building.”

Dr. Eric Mackey is expected to announce his K-12 road map later this week on how Alabama schools plan to proceed this fall with a return to learning. Harris said his team is closely working with Mackey as well as superintendents across the state as those plans are made.

“We’ve had a public health represented on his strategic planning team that’s developing the return to school documents,” Harris said. “We’ve tried to help them develop strategies around some very basic public health measures that ought to be in place everywhere in schools or anywhere else. We want people to be very careful about hand washing and sanitation. We want to try to encourage social distancing to the extent that that’s practical, it’s certainly not always practical in the school setting. We think people need to stay home if they’re sick and when you have kids who are ill, we want to be able to make sure they are isolated from other kids as quickly as possible and that they get appropriate care. I think there are a number of just sort of common sense precautions that will be encouraged. Ultimately, I think local school boards and local superintendents are going to be the ones who are going to have to make those decisions. We realize that every school district is different, but we’re going to do our best to give them the best guidance and advice we can.”

The last time Governor Kay Ivey addressed Alabamians on COVID-19 was back on May 21 when she amended the Safer at Home order which runs through July 3. Harris said Ivey is working to decide whether new restrictions should be announced.

“We’re having discussions with that and are trying to present all the policy options that we have to the governor for her consideration,” Harris said. “She has a number of things to consider. Not only the public health of the state, which I’m sure everyone would agree is the most important thing, but also other important factors related to the economy and jobs and other things as well. So we’re trying to present to her the best things that we can. I think she’ll probably say something at some point soon, before the July 3 order expires. It seems likely that we’re going certainly become less stringent for sure, but we’ll know more about that hopefully in the next few days.”

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