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The Coronavirus Epidemic In Birmingham, Ala. Seen Through A Doctor With The Disease


Alabama is the latest state to order citizens to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic. Republican Gov. Kay Ivey was under pressure to be more aggressive, as neighboring states and Alabama's largest city had already imposed shelter-in-place orders. Birmingham has seen an escalation in COVID-19 cases. One doctor in that city is combatting the disease personally and professionally and hoping for the best. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: After working for weeks to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Mustafa Ahmed is now fighting his own case of COVID-19.

MUSTAFA AHMED: For me, it was like I was being hit by a train.

ELLIOTT: Ahmed is an interventional cardiologist at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a major medical hub for the state. His symptoms came on fast - intense headache, fever, muscle aches, fatigue.

AHMED: It's a scary thing when you get this because you're seeing colleagues and health care workers around the world really struck down with it.

ELLIOTT: Ahmed is 38 years old and had been in good health. Now he's in single-room isolation at home. He's been using technology to connect remotely with family around the world and his colleagues at UAB. Because of a lack of widespread testing, he says there's no way to pinpoint how he became infected.

AHMED: Is it from just walking around? Is it before you get to work? Is it on the way into work? Is it the people you pass the week before that don't want to social distance or feel the need ignore that? And so you don't know.

ELLIOTT: Those are universal questions, Ahmed says, that could only be answered with universal testing, something that's not possible right now. But he says, the testing situation at UAB has improved vastly from weeks ago, when tests was scarce and results took days to process. Now, he says, results are back in hours, and there's a promise of an even more rapid test.

AHMED: This is a weekly moving target. Where we are right now this minute is a long, long - what's the best way to say this? - is a hell of a lot better than where we were this time last week. And this time last week, we were in a much better situation than we were in the week before that.

ELLIOTT: Regardless of the testing capacity, Ahmed says there's no question that there's community spread happening in Birmingham right now. UAB and other local hospitals started getting their first wave of severe cases last week.

AHMED: It's just starting. And it's going to get much, much worse.

ELLIOTT: The prospect has city leaders trying to get the word out.


RANDALL WOODFIN: Good morning. This is Mayor Randall Woodfin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

WOODFIN: I'm speaking with you this morning because...

ELLIOTT: Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has been holding these tele-town halls to relay the urgency of the situation. Woodfin says when 12 days of voluntary social distancing didn't really work, the city adopted a shelter-in-place ordinance on March 24 and, today, extended it through the end of April.

WOODFIN: We should all do everything we can at the local, state and federal level - Democrat, Republican; it doesn't matter - to do what's necessary in the middle of a health crisis to make sure we stop the run (ph) on our hospitals, to stop the run (ph) on our elderly community.

ELLIOTT: He's been frustrated by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey's reluctance to order a statewide stay-at-home order. After warning last week that government can choke business, Ivey today changed her policy.


KAY IVEY: People are not paying attention to the orders we've asked them to abide by by social distancing and staying 6 feet apart and staying at home if they could, so bottom line is folks are just not paying attention.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Ahmed at UAB says government should be taking bold action given what has happened globally.

AHMED: Nowhere in the world has come out and said, we did too much - no one.

ELLIOTT: Ahmed says most have wished they'd done more and acted earlier.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.