By Hannah Echols
After a year of virtual holidays and celebrations, Alabama residents saw a brief return to near normal in May and June 2021, with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations dropping to the lowest numbers since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant and low vaccination rates have led to a surge in cases throughout Alabama and much of the South.
“Unfortunately, Alabama has seen a drastic increase in cases compared to earlier in the summer,” said Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., epidemiologist and professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. “The highly contagious Delta variant has hospitalized and taken the lives of people of all ages, including patients who were young and healthy. To get out of the surge, precautions need to be taken to keep our community as safe as possible as we enter the fall.”
Throughout the pandemic, Alabama typically saw spikes in cases after holidays like Labor Day. Judd shares her tips on how to stay safe during Labor Day celebrations and upcoming fall activities.
The vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are safe and effective. The vast majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are not vaccinated.
Wear a Mask
The virus is circulating at high levels in Alabama. Judd advises everyone to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public settings and outdoor settings where distancing is not maintained. Studies show wearing masks reduces the spread of COVID-19 by 30-70 percent. Masking during the Labor Day weekend could prevent at least 3,500 and as many as 6,000 cases in Alabama in the following week, Judd says.
UAB physicians also agree that universal masking is an effective way to reduce transmission. UAB studied the effects of universal masking and found the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among health care workers at UAB Hospital was reduced by 68 percent in the early days of the pandemic.
Additionally, Rachael Lee, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UAB and the UAB study’s senior author, references another study that found facemasks were 79 percent effective in preventing transmission in households.
Judd notes that fewer cases should translate into a shorter wave in the current outbreak.
Group Setting and Travel Precautions
Judd acknowledges it is tempting to attend gatherings during the Labor Day holiday; but she recommends considering risk factors like the vaccination status of yourself and others, whether masks will be worn, and making smart, safe choices. With the current surge in cases and high transmission levels, it may be safer to postpone gatherings. If you do attend an event, wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.
Parents attending gatherings with children ineligible to receive the vaccine are encouraged to monitor any symptoms that children develop. For now, assume all cold or flu-like symptoms could be COVID-19. Avoid those who are symptomatic, and do not share items such as glasses and silverware when eating or drinking. Parents should remember that, even if they are vaccinated, they can spread the virus to their unvaccinated children.
While the safest option is to stay at home or in one’s local community, Judd acknowledges that traveling for holidays, work or activities is frequent throughout the fall. Layering protective methods while traveling can help reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus.
When deciding where to celebrate the holiday, Judd says some places are safer than others. Places where people are masked and vaccinated and in an outdoor setting where distancing can be maintained are safer options. People who are unvaccinated are at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 and should reconsider gathering with others, especially if the group is unmasked.
All travelers should wear a mask and avoid large gatherings. For travelers who cannot avoid large gatherings, Judd suggests they wear a KN95 style mask and eye protection, such as glasses or a face shield. If you choose only one of these, the mask should be the first choice. People should carefully monitor for any symptoms that arise post-travel and get tested should any develop.
The upcoming Labor Day weekend is pivotal in terms of getting Alabama out of the current surge. Judd notes that taking precautions now, such as vaccination, physical distancing, wearing masks and staying home if one feels any symptoms — no matter how small — can help end this wave. Along with the safety precautions, increasing vaccination rates is important to help prevent additional surges and allow Alabamians to celebrate future holidays and events mask-free.