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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — As Huntsville-area school districts prepare to start the year virtually, Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health said schools need to be innovative in preparing for students to return to the classroom.

Landers said a COVID-19 tracing app for college students is being developed in partnership with the state, Google, Apple and the University of Alabama system. Landers said the app could potentially be used outside colleges at some point. State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris as well as representatives from UAB will discuss the app during a news conference Monday.

A tool kit was also developed for school systems that include signage and information for students and faculty. Landers said the kit will also help explain ADPH’s contact and case investigation procedures developed for the upcoming school year. More information will be released during a webinar on Tuesday, she said.

Landers was asked during Friday’s Huntsville-area COVID-19 briefing how returning to school and the recommended six-feet of social distancing would work together?

“In talking to many of the persons involved in this, we’ve really outlined, again, how to make these kinds of alterations in the physical plant work. One of the alternations is spacing desks, putting some barriers between desks. Putting some barriers up, regarding tables,” Landers said.”Keeping the separation as far apart as possible.

“Again, trying to maintain the six-feet, but recognizing that three to six feet can be reasonable in an atmosphere of this nature — if we are also using other measures such as respiratory hygiene and the use of the cloth face covering. So while schools aren’t designed for this particular activity — I think none of us have seen that anything is really designed for what we have been facing — we have to be innovative in order to bring our children back to school safely.”

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said they’ve seen a decrease in daily case numbers, possibly due to Gov. Kay Ivey’s mask ordinance. Strong reported new cases between July 13-20 fell 35 percent. He said the 14-day change in cases fell by 3 percent.

Strong said there are currently 136 COVID-19 patients in Huntsville-area hospitals, 40 in the ICU and 22 on ventilators.

Outside of Madison County, the Huntsville Hospital system is treating 12 patients at Athens-Limestone Hospital, 31 at Decatur-Morgan Hospital, 33 at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield, one at Red Bay, 10 at Marshall Medical Center North, 16 at Marshall Medical Center South and one at Highlands Medical Center in Scottsboro. Of those 104 patients, 36 are in the ICU and 12 are on ventilators, he said.

Strong commended hospital administrators for not accepting requests from other hospitals to take COVID-19 patients from other regions.

“While requests from other states and other locations in Alabama have sought to transfer COVID patients to our local hospitals, our hospital administrators feel at this time with case numbers where they are and the number of health care workers being treated themselves, this would not be a good plan forward for our health care system. And I applaud their decision,” Strong said.

Landers also reminded parents of the importance of preventative child care and encouraged families to stay up to date on vaccinations.