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With COVID-19 cases on rise, Birmingham doctor has warning for City Council

Dr. Celeste Reese-Willis, who oversees coronavirus testing at Legion Field, spoke at the Birmingham City Council meeting on Tuesday to raise awareness about COVID-19. (Erica Wright, The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

As the record number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise rapidly across the state and the nation, Jefferson County has not been spared with more than 28,000 cases and over 470 deaths recorded. 

Currently, more than 70,000 Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest number of hospitalizations since the pandemic began and over 200,000 have died from the virus. In Alabama, hospitalizations increased from 995 to 1088 between Nov. 4 and Nov. 11, according to Alabama Department of Public Health data.  

Dr. Celeste Reese-Willis, a board-certified family medicine physician with the Willis Medical Group in Birmingham who is overseeing coronavirus testing at Legion Field sounded the alarm before the City Council on Tuesday.

“We hadn’t seen this same spike in the summer, because it was warm outside and people were able to gather more outside for social things,” Willis said. “Now, with the weather turning colder, people are going to be inside.”

Willis said her main concern from what she sees at Legion Field is “the way the virus spreads through different families is directly tied to some of their behavior. Younger people being around the parents or grandparents and bringing it to them.”

Now is time more than ever to be vigilant, she said.

“We know that [masks help] and we know travel increases the risk of the spread of the virus so with the holiday season coming up and it’s getting colder outside and people want to gather inside, but what we need to be mindful of is the incubation that exists,” she said. 

She outlined some important steps for residents to take. 

“Mask wearing, having leaders that support that and encouraging people to make it fun by tying it to the fact that wearing that mask can save someone’s life,” she said. “A lot of the patients that are [showing symptoms of COVID-19] in the last month or so are having more intense symptoms. Typically, when we started doing testing back in April, not  a large percentage of patients would have symptoms…there has been a huge increase in the number of patients that are [showing symptoms] that are positive. Many of them are having short of breath, not being able to breathe and waiting to be tested and we just need to circle around and encourage everybody to get tested sooner.”

She also said limit gatherings to 10 people or less socially even in a business setting and avoid having nonessential people in the meetings, if that is possible.

The doctor also recommended to not gather at Thanksgiving with friends and family outside of the immediate household. “Even if people try to test prior to getting together for Thanksgiving, they can actually spread the virus because you can be asymptomatic in spreading it,” she said. 

And she also encouraged people to get their flu vaccine which cannot prevent someone from getting COVID-19, but could help patients avoid both the flu and coronavirus. 

She asked councilors to get their flu shot and encourage others to do so.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Willis. “Share it with the people that listen to you, the people that you have influence over because it is simply something that the health community needs right at this point in order to survive the pandemic.”

The surge in cases has created another problem: healthcare workers are being overwhelmed with more work on the horizon, she said.

“The surge that we’ve had in the last week, this is prior to Thanksgiving,” said Willis. “We always see a spike in circulating respiratory illness right after the holidays, but we are before the holidays and are dealing with numbers directly tied to Halloween and voting… we’re already exhausting our resources. Healthcare workers are tired. We’re going through a great deal.” 

Updated at 11:37 a.m. with editing throughout.