MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Thousands of Alabamians are filing for unemployment benefits, sometimes overwhelming the state application system, as the coronavirus pandemic causes workplaces to temporarily close or reduce operations.
Nearly 17,000 people filed unemployment claims over just two days -- Sunday and Monday-- according to preliminary numbers given by Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison.
Health officials have acknowledged the economic cost of mandatory closures, but say they're crucial to slow the outbreak as caseloads grow exponentially, threatening to overwhelm hospitals. People can be contagious without showing symptoms and spend days infecting others before falling ill.
"I want to be very clear. This is a matter of life and death," Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said Sunday in announcing the closures of non-essential businesses in that county.
Despite this, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said she was following the lead of President Donald Trump, and expressed reluctance on Tuesday to join other governors in issuing a statewide order shutting down non-essential activities.
"I want to echo the President who today said we have to get back to work. We must do everything we can to keep businesses open and if they are closed, get them back up as soon as possible," Ivey said.
Alabama's statewide orders include closing beaches and prohibiting on-site restaurant dining and non-work gatherings of more than 25 people where people can't stay 6-feet (2-meters) apart.
Birmingham has issued a "shelter in place" order directing people to stay inside unless going out for food, medicine, exercise or essential services. Dr. Sarah Nafziger, the co-chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Emergency Management Committee, said Tuesday that the hospital has isolated 45 COVID-19 patients and is awaiting test results for another 81.
"We have experienced an exponential increase in the number of patients in the last few days," Nafziger said. "This is a dangerous situation that our community needs to take seriously."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Limited testing has shown that Alabama had at least 242 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, with 91 of those cases in Jefferson County, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Most of the claims were listed as related to the COVID-19 outbreak, Hutchison said, and many of the new cases are believed to be from the hospitality industry. A total of 9,347 claims were filed the week that ended March 20, up from 1,434 claims the previous week that ended March 13. The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.
In Alabama, people either apply by phone line or through the on-line system. Hutchinson said they are aware that sometimes people have had trouble getting through on the telephone system.
"Patience and understanding are appreciated. Know we hear your concerns and are working to address them," Hutchinson said. To help the process, the state is waiving charges against employers who file partial unemployment compensation claims on behalf of their employees.