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Alabama Has No Coronavirus Cases Yet, And Isn't Taking Major Measures Against It

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One state where the coronavirus has not been detected is Alabama. Some there say officials should be doing more to prepare and test for the disease. From member station WBHM, Mary Scott Hodgin has more.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Hundreds of women are in Birmingham, Ala., for a leadership conference this week. They're walking around, visiting booths and networking. But attendee Dana Pippins says a few things are different.

DANA PIPPINS: No hugging, no shaking of hands. We're doing the elbow bumps.

SCOTT HODGIN: Earlier in the week, event organizers sent out a warning email about the coronavirus, but they didn't cancel the conference. April Benetollo leads the group that organized it.

APRIL BENETOLLO: Based on the information that we had and the potential trade-off with the risk, we felt strongly that it was OK to go forward.

SCOTT HODGIN: To date, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alabama. But that doesn't mean it's not here. As of this week, fewer than 50 people in a state of almost 5 million had been tested for the virus. Officials say they're following guidelines and testing people at high risk who meet strict criteria.

Dr. Mark Wilson is the health officer for Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located. He says statewide, health officials are concerned because they don't have an accurate picture of what's happening.

MARK WILSON: We want to be able to do more testing. And frankly, we feel that we are working in the dark a little bit in terms of knowing what's really going on in our community.

SCOTT HODGIN: Wilson says there's talk of expanding criteria to test more people, but that'll require more resources. For now, he says Alabama residents should expect there's active coronavirus transmission because there probably is. But without the data, it's difficult to tell people to stay home or cancel big events.

WILSON: Traditionally, we do depend on case identification to help guide what measures we take.

SCOTT HODGIN: Next door in Georgia, where dozens of cases have been identified, the governor requested $100 million to combat the virus. Other states have ordered emergency declarations and limited the size of mass gatherings. That's not happened in Alabama. The Legislature did approve $5 million in emergency spending today, and Governor Kay Ivey has set up a coronavirus task force. Still, with no detected cases, some state officials say there's no need to worry.

JOHN MERRILL: There is no concern from us.

SCOTT HODGIN: That's Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. His agency is in charge of a statewide election later this month - a runoff for the GOP Senate primary. Merrill says he has a plan if officials start detecting the coronavirus, but he won't give specifics.

MERRILL: We don't need to be overly anxious about what might happen or what might not happen.

SCOTT HODGIN: Back at the conference in Birmingham, attendee Dana Pippins says she's trying not to panic.

PIPPINS: I don't want to become hyperaware or hyper-afraid, but I think so long as you take the necessary precautions - keep your hands washed, your hand sanitizer - that it is a manageable risk.

SCOTT HODGIN: Pippins says she'd feel the same way even if a case were detected in Alabama.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.