MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency Friday and closed public schools for two-and-a-half weeks as the state reported its first cases of coronavirus.
Ivey said all K-12 public schools will close after March 18 for a two-and-a-half-week break. Some schools were on spring break during part of this time.
“Folks, let's take a common-sense approach and remember calm and steady win the race," Ivey said in a news conference. "Alabamians should not be fearful but instead use common sense to watch out for ourselves and others."
The Alabama Department of Public Health listed on its website Friday that there were a total of six known coronavirus cases in Alabama.
“This is a very fast-moving situation. We are not surprised to have additional cases,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said.
The cases were reported in Montgomery, Jefferson, Limestone, Tuscaloosa and Elmore counties. Another case was listed as out of town.
Harris said no cases have been linked to schools, but temporary school closures are a “great proactive step to slow the speed of transmission in a community."
Superintendent Eric Mackey said they tried to give parents notice of the school closings so parents could make childcare arrangements. The schools will not have to make up those days since a state of emergency has been declared, Mackey said.
Mackey said the target is for schools to reopen on April 6, but they will evaluate the situation in late March. He said they are getting a federal waiver to try to continue to provide meals at high-poverty schools. He said they are working on details.
“On a case-by-case basis, as much as possible, we will continue food service," Mackey said.
Private schools will make their own decisions about closures.
The Alabama Department of Public Health recommended that people cancel or avoid large public gatherings with more than 500 people. Harris also said people should stay about 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart from others in public.
“Be smart about hygiene, about covering your cough, washing your hands and please stay home if you are sick," Harris said.
Alabama was one of the last states to report a case. The state lab began testing last week, Harris said.
State labs as of Thursday had only tested about 50 people for coronavirus, all of which were previously negative.
Harris said testing at the state lab was initially limited to priority cases where people were considered most at risk because of travel to another country or because they were seriously ill. He said testing criteria has now been liberalized and the state will test a person when a doctor recommends it. Private labs are also doing testing, he said.
“As we ramp up our testing capacity, we are starting to find these cases just like surrounding states," Harris said.
The Department of Public Health is establishing a call center beginning Saturday morning for people to get information about testing and whether should seek it. The number is 1-888-264-2256.
To try to limit the spread of the virus, cities and counties rushed to cancel public events, and large universities announced a temporary switch to online classes.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the March 31 primary runoff will go on as planned. His office announced Friday that “voters who are concerned about contracting or spreading an illness or have an infirmity may vote by absentee." The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is March 26.
Alabama law requires absentee voters to affirm that they are sick, out of town, working a long shift or infirm when they request a absentee. Merrill said Friday that voters “should list the reason that they feel is appropriate for them."
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 5,000 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the virus.
Major universities, including the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Troy University and other institutions on Thursday announced a shift to online classes.
The state's two-year college system said it will temporarily discontinue on-campus instruction at 23 institutions from March 17 through April 3. Many schools had scheduled spring break during that time.
Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker told presiding judges in judicial circuits that they have the authority to postpone jury trials next week if they believe it is needed.