Officials work to lower risk of coronavirus in Jefferson County

Officials work to lower risk of coronavirus in Jefferson County
Officials are taking steps to reduce the risk of coronavirus at the Jefferson County Courthouse, such as stepping up cleaning procedures and making hand sanitizer widely available in the building. (contributed)

As governments around the world ramp up responses to the COVID-19 coronavirus, institutions in the Birmingham metro area are working to prepare local government and schools to minimize the risk.

While there have been no identified COVID-19 cases in Alabama, local officials are trying to get out front of the disease.

“We are blessed to live where we do [and] to have the knowledge and expertise that we can call upon,” said Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens, pointing to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Jefferson County Health Department, Southern Research and other entities. “They are very well equipped to handle situations such as this. The coordination of their efforts will keep our citizens safe.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Dr. Wesley Willeford, director of disease control at the Jefferson County Department of Health, give an update on coronavirus preparations at City Hall on Tuesday. (Erica Wright/The Birmingham Times)

On Tuesday, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin outlined a number of steps the city was taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including restricting some travel by city employees.

Both Jefferson County and the city are making efforts to minimize the risks of the virus to the community, particularly in government buildings.

“We had a meeting [last week] because our new [Jefferson County] presiding judge, Elisabeth French, had concerns,” said County Commissioner Joe Knight. “We have a jail full of people [in the county lockup], and there are the ‘what ifs,’ so we have already started addressing that.”

With Wesley Willeford, M.D., the county health department’s director for disease control, by his side at City Hall, the mayor said the city is suspending nonessential travel for city business by city employees, and is putting in place protocols and identifying next steps for any employee who may have recently traveled to a high-risk location.

“As a community, we must move on with day-to-day life. We have city functions to perform, we all have jobs, businesses, schools and families to take care of, but we all must work together as a community through prevention measures shared by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” Woodfin said.

Those measures included washing hands frequently with soap and water or a 60%-alcohol-based hand gel, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying at home from work or school if you have a fever, and cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces at home, school and work as often as possible, Woodfin and Willeford said.

County courthouses

Knight, a nurse anesthesiologist, said conversations were also underway with Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos about the health safety of the Birmingham and Bessemer courthouses, focused on the question, “What can we do immediately?”

Officials said UAB is a valuable community resource as they prepare for the COVID-19 coronavirus to arrive in Jefferson County. (contributed)

For example, “What can be done to get hand sanitizers everywhere here in this courthouse?” Knight asked. “We’re doing that, but the problem is there a shortage that is starting to develop. We were able to have the foresight to order enough to get a head start on that.”

The county has also emphasized scrubbing inside the building.

“We are starting to talk to our cleaning crew,” Knight said. “We have a lot of people coming in and out of [the courthouse], and we want to keep it as clean as possible.”

More stringent procedures, such as testing everyone’s temperature with thermometers when they enter government buildings, won’t be implemented yet, Knight said.

“But we are going to do everything we can,” he said.

Both county judges and the sheriff’s office have been a part of the conversation.

“You have to do what you can to minimize the risk right now,” Knight said.

Stephens said Jefferson County is in good shape at this time. “That’s not to say we won’t have someone come in in the next week or month that will test positive,” he said, but the county has a plan that Dr. Mark Wilson and the county health department, the state health department and the CDC will put in place.

Stephens, a former schoolteacher, said one of the primary concerns is the school system. “The flu, the cold, a lot of that is carried primarily through large gatherings of people or in classroom environments,” he said. “That should be our first line of defense, and we are working with our school boards.”

Both the CDC and the ADPH have published guidance on the virus. Visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus or www.alabamapublichealth.org for more information. The city has established a web page with updates and health links at www.birminghamal.gov/coronavirus.

This story originally appeared on The Birmingham Times’ websiteTimes staff writer Erica Wright contributed to this story.

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