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Health officer: Face mask requirement may be needed indoors

July 22, 2021 GMT

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Cases of COVID-19 are rising exponentially in Alabama’s largest metro area because a new, highly contagious variant is spreading among the unvaccinated, and public places should consider a return to requiring face masks, the head of the area health department said Thursday.

Dr. Mark Wilson, the health officer for Jefferson County, said studies have shown that the delta variant that’s taken hold in Alabama can spread between people in less than a minute, so any indoor area where people gather might need a face mask requirement or at least a strong recommendation that people wear them.

The seven-day rolling average for new cases of COVID-19 has risen eightfold from 13 to 107 a day, he said, and additional new cases and more deaths linked to the pandemic are inevitable, she said.

“The tragic thing is that almost all of these deaths will have been prevented if only those people had been vaccinated,” Wilson said.

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The problem isn’t isolated to Jefferson County: Only eight of Alabama’s 67 counties aren’t considered at high risk for the illness caused by the coronavirus, and roughly 50 more patients a day are being admitted to state hospitals with COVID-19, which already has killed more than 11,460 people in Alabama.

With only 31% of the population fully vaccinated and nearly all the new, most serious cases among people who aren’t inoculated, Wilson said the state’s vaccination rate is “way, way below” what is needed to control the pandemic.

Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters Thursday the blame for the new surge in cases is with people who refuse to get vaccinated.

“The few cases of COVID are because of unvaccinated folks. Almost 100% of the new hospitalizations are unvaccinated folks. And the deaths certainly are occurring with unvaccinated folks. These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain. We’ve got to get folks to take the shot,” Ivey said during an appearance in Birmingham.

The governor said she doesn’t like another mask mandate, but she also doesn’t know how to convince more people to get their COVID-19 shots.

“Get a shot in your arm. I’ve done it. It’s safe. The data proves it. It doesn’t cost anything. It saves lives,” Ivey said.

Cases have surged since the July 4 holiday, which officials feared would lead to new outbreaks, Dr. Scott Harris, the head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in a video update released by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.

“Right now we are seeing some pretty difficult times here in Alabama,” Harris said.

Some of the infections are occurring after the type of large gatherings that generally didn’t occur until the state lifted health restrictions. Dr. David Thrasher, who practices in Montgomery, said a doctor friend told him about a church in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville that recently held a large celebration for its 200th anniversary which was followed by a massive disease outbreak.

“Seventy people in that congregation have tested positive,” he said. Thrasher said a friend of his died recently and two people who attended the funeral became infected even though they were vaccinated.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 772, a spike of 280%, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

There were about 226 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks ninth in the country.