MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama lawmakers approved additional money Thursday for coronavirus testing and response to increase the number of people being screened for the rapidly spreading illness.
Alabama lawmakers approved a $5 million supplemental appropriation for the Alabama Department of Public Health to fund coronavirus preparations. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said the funding should help provide centers where people can obtain a test if their doctor believes it is necessary. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the appropriation.
"That's the key. You are not going to stop the spread of this disease ladies and gentleman, you have to slow it down to give the medical community time to deal with it," Marsh told lawmakers. The Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The vote came on the same day that the Alabama Department of Public Health recommended that people avoid large public gatherings with more than 500 people — schools and workplaces not included. Meanwhile, Auburn University, Troy University and other institutions announced a shift to online classes.
Alabama is one of the few states that has not had a confirmed case of coronavirus, but health officials cautioned that there are likely unidentified cases in the state. The state lab has so far tested about 50 people, in addition to tests now being done by private laboratories, state health officials said.
"We fully expect in the coming days that we will find cases," State Health Officer Scott Harris said. "We think people need to pay attention, be prepared."
Harris said part of the state money will be used to establish 20 to 25 screening centers where people, upon a doctor's recommendation, can obtain a test. He said there will not be walk-in centers open to the public, but that could change at some point. He said there is no charge for tests performed by the health department.
Harris said he believed the state has plenty of testing capacity, but testing was initially limited to priority cases where people were considered most at risk. He said testing criteria has been liberalized and will test at a doctor's recommendation.
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said Thursday that he is worried about the low level of people being screened so far.
"I am extremely concerned about the lack of availability of testing for this both in Alabama and the country at large — especially it seems in Alabama. Until the tests are widely available and affordable, we won't really know the extent of what we are dealing with here," Jones told reporters Thursday.
Jones said it is false at this point to claim that everyone who wants a test can get one.
"That is just not the case," Jones said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. More than 4,700 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the virus.
Troy University announced that it is switching to online classes until April 6. It is one of several universities announcing changes to limit the spread of the virus,
Auburn University instructed students not to return to campus after spring break. The school said it would transition to remote learning beginning March 10 and lasting through April 10. University officials said they would determine later if students will return to the campus for the remaining weeks of the spring semester.
"We are taking these unprecedented steps based on our utmost concern for the health and well-being of Auburn students, faculty and staff," Auburn University President Jay Gogue said.
Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said the county department is recommending that public gatherings with more than 500 people be canceled until further notice as a "prudent step" to limit the spread.
Harris said that is the same recommendation being made statewide.
Alabama House Democrats on Thursday renewed their call for Medicaid expansion in the state, saying the state's rural healthcare infrastructure has crumbled because of hospital closures as the state faces a pandemic.
"Medicaid expansion can not wait," said Rep. Mary Moore, a Democratic representative from Birmingham.
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