Face masks, social distancing, sanitizing and vigilance are the tools left in the toolbox for fighting COVID-19, say local health officials.

Alabama Department of Health Area Administrator Judy Smith, Marshall Medical Centers Chief Nursing Officer Kathy Woodruff and Marshall County Emergency Management Agency Director Anita McBurnett held a briefing Wednesday at the Marshall County Commission Chambers in the Guntersville Courthouse.

“We want people in Marshall County to understand COVID-19 is real and it is in Marshall County, “ McBurnett said. “We need to take this seriously. Wash your hands. Wear a face covering. Sanitize. Social distance. Do your part to help slow down and stop the spread of this virus. These are the only tools we have left in our toolbox to stop the spread... Do your part. Chip in. Help us help each other.”

Woodruff said while the Marshall Medical Center hospital system is prepared to treat COVID-19 patients, the rising number of patients may soon overwhelm the system.

“So far at Marshall Medical Centers, we have tested 1,066 patients,” she said. “That doesn’t include people being tested by other testing sites or in other doctor’s offices. We are testing people who come to the ER and are really sick.

“We’ve seen a big, big increase in cases since the state ‘reopened’ in May,” she continued. “We saw an increase of 58 patients this week. That’s a lot. It scares me. I don’t want to panic the community, but this is serious.”

McBurnett said Marshall County ranks fifth in the number of cases in the state.

“Neighboring counties, like Morgan and Madison, are seeing increases in cases as well,” she said. “Here in a few days we will go into the Fourth of July holiday. Then right around the corner is the start of the school year.

“Anytime people gather in small places without good ventilation and where people aren’t using masks you have the potential to see an increase in cases,” she added.

 Smith said many people haven’t taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously.

“They think it is just like the flu, but it’s not,” she said. “In an average year, we will have 60,000 people die from the flu nationwide. This year we’ve seen 123,000 deaths. Those 60,000 are usually over an entire year and there is a vaccine for the flu. We don’t have a vaccine for this virus and we have a lot of unanswered questions about it as well.”

When the state went under a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Kay Ivey in March and the more relaxed safer-at-home order, Smith said people seemed to be more vigilant.

“We opened up the state the first part of May because we had to,” Smith said. “It was essential our businesses reopened. It was a tremendous balance of lives and livelihood.

“Businesses were closing for good,” she continued. “People lost jobs. But at the same time, there seemed to be a sense that everything was over. Everybody started going out. Folks decided the threat was over and they were out and about… While we may be out and about, so is the virus.”

The three women agreed, the virus remains an unseen threat.

“When you go to where you are going, be it TJ Maxx, church or wherever, there will be a positive case,” Smith said. “You need to assume that when you go to church, for example, someone in the church is already COVID positive.

“But I must urge against this notion of having a COVID party,” she added. “Used to be, back when we had chicken pox, parents would get children together to get the chicken pox and get it over with. Sure, a few got really sick, but for the most part they got over it quickly… This virus is deadly. It is not just the flu.”

Smith said she has served in the public health field for more than 50 years.

“I have finally — just now — talked people into washing their hands,” she said. “It’s been a trial. We have the ability to mitigate this, but everyone has to be a part of this… Don’t be a weak link. We are in this together. Some people are weak links. Don’t be one of them.”

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