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As Alabama Reopens, Birmingham Institutes Stricter Guidelines

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, we're looking at how different parts of the country are managing the COVID-19 crisis. In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey started loosening restrictions on beaches, stores and other businesses. But Alabama doesn't appear to be past the peak. On Saturday, the number of confirmed cases was the third highest since the outbreak started. Dr. Mark Wilson is the health officer for Jefferson County, which is home to the city of Birmingham. Dr. Wilson, good morning.

MARK WILSON: Good morning.

KING: Let me start by asking you how you think the state of Alabama has managed this pandemic so far.

WILSON: Well, I'm actually pleased with the latest order because it was only a very slight change from the previous stay-at-home order. The main changes were, you know, opening some more retail at about 50% of capacity, but still allowing - requiring social distancing and then allowing some elective medical and dental procedures to open up, which was previously not allowed. And that can be reversed if we don't have enough PPE. But there are other ways in which Alabama is not quite ready. You know, we don't have widespread testing. We're not meeting those White House gating criteria fully.

KING: I want to ask you about that because Birmingham city's mayor, Randall Woodfin, was on NBC's "Meet The Press" this weekend. And he said - he said, we don't have enough contact tracing. We don't have enough testing in place to reopen. What is the gap between what you have and what you need?

WILSON: Yeah. So I think across the state, certainly, the testing has not been widespread enough or readily available to everyone who needs it. Here in Jefferson County, we're actually in relatively good shape. We have capacity. We've already ramped up our contact tracing capacity at our health department to about 30 people. We anticipate a need of 50 to a hundred. So we're well on the way. And we're currently keeping up just fine and pretty well-resourced compared to the rest of the state.

KING: I want to ask you about whether you think you're past the peak. Jefferson County has 969 total cases; 130 of those new cases were just in the past week. Do you think now is the time to tell people it's OK to go shopping?

WILSON: Yeah. We're still really encouraging people to stay at home unless it's necessary to go out, especially those more vulnerable people. So again, we've made some incremental changes. But we're really trying to push out the messaging very, very hard to just tell people, don't start going crazy and just go out.

We're still limiting, you know, people to no more than 10 and - you know, in a gathering and also, you know, that social distancing is required. We're requiring people - or asking people to wear face masks when they go out, et cetera. So it's still fairly strict here. But I am a little bit nervous about it. I'm especially nervous about running out of PPE and the supplies that we need.

KING: Is there any argument that you should have opened earlier, that you should have lifted the lockdown order earlier in order to spare jobs, in order to get people back to work? And I know you're a medical doctor.

WILSON: Right. I'm a medical doctor. But in public health, you know, we do take a balanced approach. We realize that a paycheck, jobs, having an income is important for people's health. So there is a balancing act there. The economy is not my primary job. But it's certainly a big concern.

KING: Dr. Mark Wilson is the health officer for Jefferson County, Ala. Sir, thank you for being with us.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.