By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
As governments around the world ramp up responses to the coronavirus, the Birmingham metro area has institutions that play a crucial role in preparing local government and schools to minimize the risk of the COVID-19 Coronavirus.
While there have been no identified COVID-19 cases in Alabama, local officials are working to get out front of the disease.
“We are blessed to live where we do [and] to have the knowledge and expertise that we can call upon,” said Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens, pointing to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Jefferson County Health Department, Southern Research and other entities. “They are very well equipped to handle situations such as this. The coordination of their efforts will keep our citizens safe.”
On Tuesday, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin outlined a number of steps the city was taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus including restricting some travel by city employees.
Both Jefferson County and the city are making efforts to minimize the risks of the virus to the community, particularly in government buildings.
“We had a meeting [last week] because our new [Jefferson County] presiding judge, Elisabeth French, had concerns,” said County Commissioner Joe Knight. “We have a jail full of people [in the county lockup], and there are the ‘what ifs,’ so we have already started addressing that.”
With Wesley Willeford, M.D., Jefferson County Department of Health Director for Disease Control by his side at City Hall, the mayor said the city is suspending nonessential travel for city business by city employees and putting in place protocols and identifying next steps for any employee who may have recently traveled to a high-risk location.
“As a community, we must move on with day to day life. We have city functions to perform, we all have jobs, businesses, schools and families to take care of but we all must work together as a community through prevention measures shared by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” said Woodfin.
Those measures included washing hands frequently with soap and water or a 60 percent alcohol based hand gel, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying at home from work or school if you have a fever and cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces at home, school and work as often as possible, said Woodfin and Willeford.
Knight, a nurse anesthesiologist, said conversations were also underway with Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos about the health safety of the Birmingham and Bessemer courthouses focused on the question: “What can we do immediately?”
For example: “What can be done to get hand sanitizers everywhere here in this courthouse?” Knight asked. “We’re doing that, but the problem is there a shortage that is starting to develop [for hand sanitizer]. We were able to have the foresight to order enough to get a head start on that.”
The county has also emphasized scrubbing inside the building.
“We are starting to talk to our cleaning crew,” Knight said. “We have a lot of people coming in and out of [the courthouse], and we want to keep it as clean as possible.”
Even more stringent procedures—such as testing everyone’s temperature with thermometers when they enter government buildings—won’t be implemented yet, Knight said.
“But we are going to do everything we can,” he said.
Both county judges and the sheriff’s office have been a part of the conversation.
“You have to do what you can to minimize the risk right now,” Knight said. “You do what you can upfront to minimize what the risk might be.
Commissioner Stephens said Jefferson County is in good shape at this time: “That’s not to say we won’t have someone come in in the next week or month that will test positive … but [we have a plan] that Dr. [Mark] Wilson and the Jefferson County Department of Health, the state health department and along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” will put in place.
Stephens, a former school teacher, said that one of primary concerns is the school system. “The flu, the cold, a lot of that is carried primarily through large gatherings of people or in classroom environments,” he said. “That should be our first line of defense, and we are working with our school boards to make sure that takes place.”
Both the CDC and the ADPH have published guidance on the virus. Visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus or www.alabamapublichealth.org for more information. The city has established a webpage with updates and health links at www.birminghamal.gov/coronavirus.
Times staff writer Erica Wright contributed to this post