SHEFFIELD — The number of COVID-19 cases in the Shoals continues to rise, and health officials say they have no reason to believe there will be a flattening or decline anytime soon.
"The real surge in Alabama didn't hit until late May and early June, so this isn't the second wave but the first one," said Helen Keller Hospital's Chief of Staff Mark Smith.
"We have 13 positive COVID-19 cases in the hospital now — a lot, but we're not overwhelmed," Smith said. "The numbers are staying on up there, and I also think the non-hospitalized COVID numbers will continue to rise."
The numbers of positive cases for Colbert and Lauderdale counties have tripled since late May.
The latest Alabama Department of Public Health Data Surveillance/Dashboard shows Colbert County with 363 confirmed cases since tracking began in mid-March. There were 112 cases reported through late May. There have been five confirmed deaths.
In Lauderdale County, the number of confirmed cases has skyrocketed, jumping from 119 in May to 410 as of Tuesday. Lauderdale also has 5 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19.
The TimesDaily sought a response from North Alabama Medical Center officials on Tuesday regarding the COVID numbers there, but was told that the information wouldn't be provided.
Furthermore, NAMC officials said they will not report specific numbers regarding current cases as they believe "state and public health officials, who are closely tracking and reporting relevant data, should continue to be the primary source of information related to the spread of the disease."
State officials do not release data specific to individual hospitals, just county-by-county totals.
Just south of the Shoals in Franklin County, the numbers have likewise risen dramatically, going from 411 cases in late May to 843 as of Tuesday with 13 confirmed deaths.
Smith said the only downward trend is the average age of those admitted to Keller Hospital.
"The trend now is slightly younger — people in their 50's and 60's," Smith said. "We're fortunately not seeing a rash of those coming in from long-term care (nursing) facilities."
However, both Helen Keller Hospital and NAMC have treated several nursing home residents in recent weeks who tested positive for COVID-19.
Smith said the main uptick (in positive cases) that hospital officials are seeing now are people trying to get back to normalcy.
"I get it, I mean, we're all ready to get back to our pre-COVID way of life, but until a vaccine comes out, there's not going to be an end to this spread," he said. "But the mortality rate will be lower in another year."
Insights prove valuable
In the meantime, Keller Hospital officials say they're continuing to gain valuable insights on treating the steadily rising number of cases.
Dr. Lynn Ridgeway, who heads Keller's COVID unit, said there's not been a sudden spike in local cases as many of their patients are transfers from outside of Colbert County.
"We're not packed or stretched too thin right now, fortunately," Ridgeway said, adding that he doesn't believe patients are as sick now as those treated just a few weeks ago.
"Maybe (the virus) has become less deadly as it moves through, or we're now more aggressive with treatment than earlier in the course of treatment," he said. "I do believe the older, more vulnerable population is being better protected now."
Ridgeway said he's even slightly optimistic now with the use of small doses of steroids in those patients who have changes in chest x-rays.
"We're not waiting until people get really sick, but when it first goes to the lungs we're treating it," he said.
There's also even better access now than just a few weeks ago to treatments like convalescent plasma transfusion and remdesivir, which is now in more ample supply.
Ridgeway said health providers are also now more aware of the virus causing blood clots. "We're super aggressive looking for and treating those now," he said.
"Blood clots are a huge problem with these patients, and we're even sending them home with medications to thin their blood for a few days until they get through it," he said. "I believe all these measures have affected our outcomes."
He said he doesn't want his optimism regarding treatment to be confused with concern for the continuing dangers of the virus.
"We're still at risk," he said. "It's under control at this moment, but this isn't the time to let up with personal behaviors and safety protocol. Masks help, so wear them and stay a proper distance from people and you'll help prevent the spread."