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A man has his nose swabbed by staff during a screening at Waddell Family Medicine as Athens-Limestone Hospital opens a flu and fever clinic on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Athens, Ala. Patients will only be tested for COVID-19 if indicated by their exam or ordered by the physician or provider. (Dan Busey/The Decatur Daily via AP)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama on Thursday ordered the closure of day cares, beaches and on-site dining in restaurants as the state tries to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

The sweeping measure expands restrictions that had been in place for six counties surrounding Birmingham to all 67 counties in the state, and closes state beaches during the busy spring break season. The health officer in Jefferson County, which has nearly half of the state's 78 cases of COVID-19, on Thursday ordered additional restrictions, including the closure of "non-essential businesses and services" such as theaters, hair salons and proms.

"We fully acknowledge that we are imposing hardship on people," state Health Officer Scott Harris said at a news conference. "Please take this seriously. This virus is serious and can kill. It is particularly deadly for our seniors and those people who have chronic health problems," Harris said.

The statewide order requires:

— All preschools, child care centers and private schools to close beginning Thursday. Alabama had already closed public K-12 schools until April 6. There are exceptions for day cares that exclusively serve hospitals and first responders

— All beaches in the state, whether private or public, to close at 5 p.m. Thursday.

— All restaurants and bars to end on-site dining, although takeout and delivery may continue.

— All gatherings of 25 people or more, or gatherings of any size that cannot maintain a consistent 6-foot distance between people, are prohibited. That may not apply to employers, such as factories. The governor said she was working to clarify the impact on employers. The Department of Public Health said it would provide additional information Friday.

— All nursing homes and hospitals will restrict visitation.

— All elective dental and medical procedures shall be delayed, effective immediately.

The order lasts through April 5.

"Despite our best efforts, the threat of the Covid-19 virus continues to spread and, unfortunately, we have not yet reached peak impact," Ivey said in a statement.

For most people, the virus 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.

The goal of slowing disease transmission is to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, health officials said.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association said there are 1,344 ventilators in the state and about 550 of those are in use on an average day. He said those may have to be shifted around the state as they have in past severe flu outbreaks.

"My big concern is this, as the tsunami approaches us in the coming weeks that we are going to be challenged to have enough ventilators for the state at large," Williamson said.

Alabama's largest coastal city of Gulf Shores had already announced the closure of public beaches because throngs of young people on spring break are ignoring rules meant to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. In neighboring Orange Beach, Mayor Tony Kennon said students flocked to Alabama at least in part because of restrictions in Florida, which closed its restaurant and nightclubs while many in Alabama had remained open.

"We have more spring breakers right now in this town than we've had in the last three years," Kennon said.

Two coronavirus cases have been confirmed in state nursing homes, one involving a patient and the other a worker, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

The Alabama Department of Corrections on Thursday said a prison system employee had tested positive for the virus. The state did not disclose where the employee works. The prison system, which had already suspended visitation, said they are checking the temperatures of workers when they enter buildings.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

 

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