Walker has first COVID death; probate gets long lines

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Two months to the day after Walker County had its first reported case of COVID-19, it recorded its first death - while lines were seen going down the block all day Tuesday at the Walker County Probate Judge's Office as more complex transactions are being caught up as the county government reopens. 

No information is known about the death, as the Alabama Department of Public Health does not release personal information about those who have contracted the disease.

As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, Walker County had 146 COVID-19 cases - an increase of 20 cases in two days - and 1,808 people tested. The state had 12,331 cases, a total of 1,432 hospitalizations and 493 deaths. (Another two cases were confirmed in the county by about 2:30 p.m., while the state death figure stood at 504 by that time.) 

Hospitalization figures for Walker County have not been released. The state does not release information about the number of people who have recovered.

Tuesday's local numbers were surprising not only for a death being registered but as Walker County had only 126 confirmed cases on Sunday at 10:30 a.m., with the number of tested also at 1,808. While the number of confirmed cases in Walker County went up 14 percent in two days, the number of confirmed cases in the state went up in that time by 589. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, at 148 deaths, Walker County had the 20th highest number of confirmed cases in the state, out of 67 counties. It ranked much better in terms of deaths per 100,000, at 174.7, at 38th place. A month ago Walker County had the ninth highest rate per 100,000 in the state for COVID-19 confirmed infections.

Sunday's 126 cases represented a 19 percent increase over the previous week. 

Tommy Dockery, the director of emergency preparedness for the West Central District of ADPH in Tuscaloosa, who is also serving as a public information officer for the Walker County Health Department, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. 

The figures were released as county businesses and the county government begin to reopen after Gov. Kay Ivey loosened "Safer at Home" restrictions in late April (which addressed retail stores, beaches and medical procedures) and in early May. 

On May 11, restaurants, gyms, bars, breweries, barber shops and hair salons were allowed to open with some restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus - but even then, many of those businesses waited a few days. 

In reaction, the Walker County Commission voted Monday morning to reopen its offices on Monday at 1 p.m. while still following state and federal guidelines for social distancing.

The Walker County Probate Judge's Office and the Revenue Commissioner's Office were closely looked at due to the larger foot traffic. Permanent glass partitions between clerks and the public were installed, also with an eye to safety precautions. 

On Tuesday morning at about 10:45 a.m., a line of 40 people were seen lining up from the doors of the Probate Office, and down the sidewalk to the old G. Mays store. Only about five were seen wearing masks, which had been recommended by the commission, although not required. No markings were seen on the sidewalk. People did not show much social distancing. 

"You can do anything out here. You just can't do it in there," one woman said. 

One man near the front of the line said he had been waiting two hours to get in. 

Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker said office officials had been walking down the line with a pad to take names and phone numbers for "checking them in," and to tell them they would be called back. However, many were opting to say in line - and he added they have the voluntary choice of going to their car or staying in line. 

One man in line said he was glad the office opened, saying he had waited for a month. Asked why he was coming that day when the deadline was extended, he brought up the threat of being pulled over without updated registration. However, he said no one has pulled him over yet. 

"We have taken folks names and their phone numbers, and we've asked them to sit in their cars, Tucker said, adding some have sat in their cars, but the vast majority wanted to stand in line. "Very few people are wearing masks, but we can't make them mandatory. We've asked them to keep distance to each other." 

About 200 people came both Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, he said.

"I think we are on our ninth or 10th yellow legal sheet of people who have been here today," he said. "It's been like this all day. We'll finish up with probably 300 people by the end of the day that we've helped, but it is a matter of getting through and doing it." He pointed out the office was also hindered by the reduced number of clerks dealing with the public to promote social distancing.

Most are coming for title transfers, which take 30 to 40 minutes each. "It mostly appears to be folks who have bought cars from individuals, so they can't use Easy Tag (the website) to do that. They have to come in," Tucker said. "Then those transactions tend to take a little longer." 

Those who have waited in their cars are called when their turn comes, he said. 

"They don't lose their spot in terms of calling," he said. "If they stay in line, they are there and we simply call the name and they come in. If they are not there, we call their phone number. Nobody loses a spot."

While he noted "everybody is human," most people have been orderly and "good natured about it." He said everyone involved has managed to get through it. 

"I know it is not easy standing out waiting. But if folks sit in their car, we call them," he said. 

As for the two-hour wait to sit in a car, he agreed it would be a long time, "but if they have another errand to run, we call them and tell them it is their time and we will keep their spot. If they are going to be longer - we've had a couple of people who have not returned the phone calls. If you don't get back with us in about 15 minutes, then you will lose your spot." 

If one doesn't get back for 10 minutes or so, "maybe you don't get to go exactly next because you are not here, but we will get you in as soon as you are here because you don't lose your spot. If you are not here, you don't lose it," he said.

"We're trying to do everything we can. I know it is frustrating for everybody, and we would love to have everyone in and other in 15 minutes, but right now, that is not where we are, because these are the longer transactions that we are doing right now. These are not just renewals." 

Tucker encouraged the public to wait several days before coming. 

"It is going to take a day or two, and they still have until June 19. Things are waived through that period of time. They can do driver's license by appointment; they can call and get a driver's license slot and come in. But if they will wait a day or two, we can clear out some of the backlog and they probably will not have to wait," he said. 

He said for those concerned about being stopped if they wait, "I don't think they will wind up with a ticket out of that, but I have no control over that part. All the penalties have been waived through June 19 and extended. The time frames were all extended." 

As for social distancing, Tucker said, "I had a police officer yesterday. I had a sheriff's deputy yesterday, and I've asked for one today." 

He said chalk may be used on the sidewalk to encourage more social distancing, "but literally you've got 40 people in that space and I don't know where they all go."