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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's health order requiring face masks in public places took effect Thursday as COVID-19 hospitalizations reached another new high in the state.

The order went into effect the same day that the state's largest public school system announced students will not return to classroom this fall because of the rise in cases.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday that the state will require face masks in public places to try to curb a surge of new coronavirus cases. The order took effect at 5 p.m. Thursday and requires people over age 6 to wear masks covering their mouth and nostrils when in public and within 6 feet (2 meters) of a person from another household. There are exemptions for certain medical conditions, certain professions, exercising and when eating and drinking.

"Science says the masks coupled with social distancing dramatically reduces transmission," said Dr. Don Williamson, the state's former health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association.

The state on Thursday had 1,376 patients hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19, the highest number since the pandemic began. Eighty-six percent of intensive care beds are full, Williamson said. While hospitals can add beds, health officials have expressed concern about that the upswing in cases could overwhelm hospitals if it continues.

The state's caseload has been increasing by an average of about 1,500 a day over the past week, and nearly 17% of virus tests are now coming back positive, nearly double from May.

Williamson said he is hopeful that the statewide mask order will help bring down caseloads.

At least two school systems — including the 54,000-student Mobile County system— have announced that students will not immediately return to classrooms and will instead do distance learning for at least a time.

Mobile County Public Schools announced Thursday that school will start Sept 1. but all instruction will be done remotely for the first nine weeks "so we can protect our children, our teachers, and our staff as much as possible during these difficult times."

"I look forward to the day that all of our students and teachers can gather in our buildings again. However, in looking at the data and in talking to health and education experts, now just does not seem like the right time," Mobile Superintendent Chresal Threadgill said in a message to parents.

Since the pandemic began, more than 60,000 people in Alabama have tested positive for COVID-19 with 30% of cases being identified in the last two weeks At least 1,200 people in the state have died after testing positive for the disease.

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