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Davis Discusses Upcoming Session

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Recently, we had a conversation with former U.S. Representative Artur Davis about the Alabama legislative session. In the interview he shares some of his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing our state.

APR: The big issues facing us aside from the budget which is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, with little where to go. Last month the Governor presented a proposal of combining the two state budgets together but that was certainly killed before it was born.

DAVIS: It is an old proposal as you know very well. I want to say it was something that Governor Brewer proposed at one point. It has been something that has been talked about in policy circles within the state for a long time. It has some surface appeal–the idea of combining the Education Fund and the General Fund. People who are strong transparency advocates believe there is a value to it. We all know why it’s not going to happen because the Education Trust Fund has all kinds of formal and informal protections that are built into it, all kinds of formal understandings that are built into it in terms of how much money is going to go for K through 12 or how much is going to go to colleges. I think that there is a feeling that if you mix all that into one fund there may be too much transparency for some people’s tastes, too much accountability for some people’s tastes.

artur-davisObviously the underlying challenge that we have is that although the numbers have got substantially better in the last several months as you know Alabama’s recovery has lagged behind in recovery as opposed to the rest of the country. Thankfully, we are not South Carolina which still has a 10 percent unemployment rate but a few months ago our numbers were pretty high in the state of Alabama. So, as long as the economy is in a condition that looks like a recession, regardless of what the national GDP says, it’s going to mean that tax revenues are low. It’s going to mean that our social services structure is stretched a little bit. It’s going to mean that we are going to have a little trouble meeting our needs.

I am certainly sympathetic to that problem and I think that frankly the Legislature doesn’t have a lot of choice other than to make dramatic, serious reductions in things that the state doesn’t need or things that the state is not getting what it pays for–where it is not getting its bang for its buck.

APR: I think they will make some hard choices. Let’s just hope they are good choices. There are always sacred cows that do not get put on the chopping block and that is an unfortunate thing.

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DAVIS: You can always have penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions. Sometimes it seems very easy to cut programs like breast cancer screening for poor women. Sometimes it is relatively easy to cut those programs, and then when you look at the cost of paying for those women later on when they are pushed into the public health system then the lack of wisdom of those decisions becomes very clear.

It is very easy to cut service programs that don’t have a huge constituency around them, that don’t serve populations that are political decisive around them in the state but sometimes you end up paying for them on the backend of those cuts and that is no better.

APR: Those unwise choices are made often because it is politically safe. One of the big issues is going to be education. I think that is going to be front and center and it is going to get a lot of press. The Governor announced his initiative and several other things but the big issue is school choice. The big thing is does that happen and how does that happen. I know DC has had success or at least it has been publicized that there is success. Any thoughts on that?

DAVIS: Well I don’t see Alabama rushing to imitate Washington, DC, laws in too many ways. I don’t think that we want to be like Washington, DC, is going to catch on in Alabama.

My sense is that I am sympathetic to people who want to give families other than a public school system that is substandard. I have never been one that believes that the choice issue, in this context of vouchers or whatever you want to call it that was any more than a very thin bandaid on a much bigger problem and a much more festering sore.I happen to believe that we need dramatic substantial reforms in education. I am someone that thinks that we need to do a much better job of filtering out teachers and getting the right teachers into the classroom and make it a lot easier to get rid of bad teachers. I think we need to do a much better job of getting leaders into the profession of being principals as opposed to career teachers who may or may not be leaders.

I am someone that thinks that we need to be open to all kinds of experiments and innovations when it comes to the public school systems which is not nearly good enough right now. My fear is that the political energy is spent fighting for a voucher program or choice program. Frankly that burns off a lot of the energy that you need to do more comprehensive things. And that is always my fear with the education debate, doing one thing that is an important symbol and may be important for some families ends up taking the place of dramatic reform that could make the whole system better. Ultimately, if you put a voucher system in place tomorrow in the state of Alabama, that is not going to change the quality of schools in Alabama. I understand theoretically it will put pressure on schools to make changes and reforms more competitive. We all know that is something that will take a while. But if you are serious about that you had better get serious about what the identity and the makeup of the reforms are going to be and not just the abstract idea of reforms. If we want to compete in a modern economy that means a better public school system. Letting some parents in the state have an easier time opting out of the public school system is not going to draw jobs to the state. I don’t know of any industry that sits around thinking, “Gee, we are willing to go to a state with weak public schools as long as we have got a choice program so that our executives’ children don’t have to go there.” That is not how industry thinks. You know, industry is thinking, “How good are your schools?” Not how good are your alternatives to your schools because they know if the people working on the assembly line are properly educated then they have a viable workforce.

When a foreign car company decides to come to Alabama or domestic manufacturing companies decides to come to Alabama, they understand that most of there employees are going to public schools. They want to make sure that those public schools are producing workers with the right skills as opposed to alternatives to public schools. That is just my mind set.

APR: When you say principals and not career teachers, one of the things that comes to mind is that there was a joke that said, “How do you become a school superintendent?” And then it said, “Well, first become a coach.”

I know far too many heads of school districts that really that is exactly what they did. They were very popular and they got their PhD in education. They are really not innovators, not forward thinkers. It’s just they have been there and have worked their way through the system. We spend a lot of money on these individuals and the selection process has gotten harder but we are not necessarily getting better quality. Then once we get them, this is a two part, they don’t many options anyway due to the system where it is mainly legislated from Montgomery.

DAVIS: I think that is certainly is something where you need national leadership in the equation but I happen to believe that it would be a much better system and a much better process if smart, talented, young professionals could be trained to become principals and school superintendents without necessarily without having to go through the normal process of becoming principals and school superintendents.

We have something called officer candidate school in the military. Officer candidate school identifies very bright young people who are serving in the military who have an obvious potential to lead and it is something that no one criticizes and it works very well.

Certainly you need principals who understand the curriculum, who understand the class role, who understand how federal regulations and statutes work. I am not suggesting that you can take someone who is coming off a nice stint in the private sector and stick them tomorrow in charge of leading a school without putting them through a lot of coaching on what that means to lead a school process.

I think there ought to be a procedure and a capacity to take leaders, people who have the ability to lead and to motivate and to allow them to become school principals without having to go through the normal process of teaching for so many years and getting this kind of degree teaching education. I just think we can do better in that regard.

There is plenty of data that says that the most important factor in a school’s success is the quality of teachers. The second most important thing is the quality of the principal. The most important part of the principal is leadership skills. So I think there ought to be a process for moving people with very strong leadership skills into the role of being principals and I am not sure that the system we have today is as laser-focused on that problem. So, that is the kind of dramatic change I think we need.

Next the next part Davis speaks more about education and also immigration and the work of Attorney General Luther Strange.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Decatur joins growing list of Alabama cities, counties requiring masks

In a 3-1 vote, the ordinance passed, but it wasn’t clear Wednesday when the order will go into effect.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Decatur is joining a growing list of Alabama cities and counties requiring masks in public. (STOCK PHOTO)

Decatur City Council members on Wednesday approved a face mask order that will require the wearing of masks in public and while on public transportation, joining a growing list of local municipalities and counties taking up such measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

In a 3-1 vote, the ordinance passed, but it wasn’t clear Wednesday when the order will go into effect.

The ordinance will require Decatur residents to wear masks while outside, in restaurants or businesses and on public transportation. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $500. 

Council members Paige Bibbee, Billy Jackson and Charles Kirby voted to approve the ordinance, and  Council member Kristi Hill voted against the measure, according to a video of the meeting

Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen told Council members before the vote that the area’s hospital intensive care beds are “approaching capacity” and elective surgeries have been cancelled to save room for COVID-19 patients. 

The city of Decatur is in Morgan and Limestone counties. In Morgan County, 30 percent of the county’s total COVID-19 cases have come in the last two weeks, while Limestone County added 44 percent of the county’s cases within the last two weeks.

Decatur Council members’ decision Wednesday came on a day when Alabama saw yet another record high number of COVID-19 patients being cared for in hospitals.

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On Wednesday, the state added 1,161 new COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths from the virus. It’s killed 1,032 people in Alabama, the UAB physician said. At least 1,110 people were being treated in hospitals in the state Wednesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the most since the pandemic began.

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Elections

State awards CARES Act funds to counties for safe elections

The Secretary of State’s office has made available online its records of how it allocated $2.2 million in federal emergency aid money to counties to prepare for the upcoming elections.

Micah Danney

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Alabama officials are preparing for the July 14 primary runoff and the general election on Nov. 3 amid a pandemic. (STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Secretary of State’s office has made available online its records of how it allocated $2.2 million in federal emergency aid money to its counties to prepare for the upcoming elections amid the pandemic.

The funding is part of $6.5 million Alabama received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March, which contained $400 million dedicated to helping states hold safe elections.

Alabama officials are preparing for the July 14 primary runoff and the general election on Nov. 3.

Secretary of State John Merrill has encouraged officials to purchase masks, gloves, disinfectant spray, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and professional cleaning services to keep polling places safe and sanitary.

Almost all the 67 counties received exactly what they asked for, save for three: Mobile, Sumter and Tuscaloosa. 

Tuscaloosa was awarded $42,766.46 but was denied $178.74 that was requested for bottled water.

“Which should tell you that we read these and went over them with a fine-toothed comb,” Merrill said.

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Mobile received the highest amount at nearly half a million dollars. It was denied about $3,000 for video projector equipment that Merrill said could be used for other things and therefore can be applied for through other programs. 

Nor did the county get almost $80,000 for mailers to notify voters whose smaller polling locations have been moved to larger spaces per federal social distancing guidelines. Merrill said that mailers have already been sent to every voter, rendering that cost unnecessary. His office also denied more than $15,000 for tents that would have sheltered voters waiting on lines because, he said, seniors can go to the front of any lines and others can wait in their cars if the weather compels them to.

Sumter County was denied $4,430.38 that it wanted to pay for people to take temperatures at polling sites. Merrill said that student volunteers can do that at no cost per state law.

Dallas County was the only county to request funds to supply every poll worker, election official, law enforcement officer and voter with personal protection equipment like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, face shields and wipes. Officials asked for and received $22,950 for PPE.

“I thought that that was a great use of their resources because they probably would not have been able to purchase something like that,” Merrill said.

Counties will be eligible for another round of funding for the November elections.

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Health

Madison County seeing surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, ambulance calls

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Pam Hudson, the CEO of Crestwood Hospital, speaks at a city briefing Wednesday. (CITY OF HUNTSVILLE)

A surge of COVID-19 cases in Madison County troubles the CEO of Crestwood Hospital, who said the public needs to take the virus seriously and do what’s needed to slow the spread by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. 

Madison County added 66 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, when the county’s total case count hit 1,620. Though Madison County had largely been spared through the early months of the pandemic, with very low case counts and deaths, over the last week, the county has reported 563 new cases — a 53 percent increase.

“Our county cases continue to climb,” said Crestwood Hospital CEO Dr. Pam Hudson, speaking at a briefing Wednesday.

“We have to flatten the curve again,” Hudson said.

Hudson said the percentage of tests that are positive in the county used to be much lower, but are now in line with the state’s current percent positivity rate of 9.92 percent. The percent positivity was 13.52 percent on Wednesday, based on fourteen-day averages of case and test increases. She said the county’s hospitals are very busy. 

“We were already busy before we had this uptick,” Hudson said. 

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There were 1,110 COVID-19 patients being cared for statewide Wednesday, the highest number since the start of the pandemic. 

Paul Finley, the mayor of the city of Madison, said there were 163 COVID-19 patients Wednesday in the Crestwood and Huntsville Hospital systems, which is a 31 percent increase from last week.

“There’s no question that these numbers continue to rise,” Finley said.

Hudson said, on average, the hospital is running at between 80 and 90 percent capacity.

“Our ambulances yesterday had their greatest number of runs since this started,” Hudson said, adding that in about 20 percent of calls staff is having to wear full personal protective equipment. “That indicates that they are working with patients who have symptoms that could be compatible with COVID.” 

A face mask order for the public went into effect Tuesday in Madison County. Similar orders are in effect in Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile, Selma and Tuscaloosa.

Last week Madison County had 500 people who tested positive for COVID-19 and were under active quarantine and being tracked by the Alabama Department of Public Health, Hudson said. On Wednesday that number was 847.

“So things are not all well in our county,” Hudson said. “COVID-19 has gained, and is continuing to gain footholds in our community.” 

Hudson said she believes the spike in cases and hospitalizations in the county comes down to people not wearing masks in public, not practicing social distancing and bars and restaurants, which are hotspots for the virus’s transmission. 

Hudson reiterated a statement made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, that up to 40 percent of coronavirus cases are caused by someone who is infected and has no symptoms, and one in 10 COVID-19 patients need hospitalization, Hudson said. 

“So this is not a nothing disease. Thirty percent of those patients who are hospitalized will end up in an ICU,” Hudson said. “And of those, 30 to 40 percent will die.” 

Local hospitals are “bumping up into some challenges” with the availability of ICU beds, Hudson said, and the medical staff is under strain and the threat of becoming infected themselves every day.

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Health

UAB expert: We can’t wait until it’s too late to act on surging cases

“We still are at a time point when we have an ability to intervene, and do something to reduce that case count, to reduce the eventual mortality,” UAB specialist Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB's Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an infectious disease specialist, spoke to reporters Wednesday about surging cases and hospitalizations in Alabama. (UAB HOSPITAL)

Alabama continues to see record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and the best way to turn the trend around is to wear face masks and practice social distancing, a UAB doctor says. 

Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, told reporters in a press conference Wednesday that the seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases in Alabama has increased fourfold over the past several weeks. 

“We still are at a time point when we have an ability to intervene, and do something to reduce that case count, to reduce the eventual mortality,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until things are so bad that it’s difficult for us to reverse the trend at all.”

Dionne-Odom said she’s concerned that the window of time to turn the trend of increasing cases, hospitalizations and the impending deaths that will surely come is limited. Wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing are some of the best tools we have to do so, she said.

On Wednesday, the state added 1,161 new COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths from the virus. It’s killed 1,032 people in Alabama, the UAB physician said. At least 1,110 people were being treated in hospitals in the state Wednesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the most since the pandemic began.

The 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,057 — the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic. 

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“The fact that we’re seeing these sharp increases and hospitalization in cases over the past week or two is really concerning,” Dionne-Odom said. “And we expect, given the lag that we know there is between cases and hospitalization — about a two-week lag, and a three-week lag between cases and deaths — that we’re on a part of the curve that we just don’t want to be on in our state.”

UAB Hospital’s COVID-19 intensive care and acute care units were approaching their existing capacity Tuesday, when the hospital was caring for 92 coronavirus patients. The hospital had 91 inpatients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Of those being treated in UAB’s COVID-19 ICU unit Tuesday, less than half were on ventilators, a UAB spokesperson, Bob Shepard, said in a message to APR on Tuesday. Ventilator usage is actually dropping, he said, a positive sign. The hospital has both a COVID ICU and a COVID acute care unit designated to keep patients separated from those who don’t have the virus, but it has more space in other non-COVID units.

“If we reach a point where we have more patients needing space in either unit, we will create more space in other areas of the hospital and designate additional beds for COVID patients,” Shepard said.

“The issue is that designating more beds for COVID care reduces the number of beds we have for patients with non-COVID illnesses, which can have a profound effect on the overall health of our community,” he said.

That flexibility was echoed by Dionne-Odom, who said that it is the type of system where they can create capacity as it’s needed. 

“And we have units that we can open and close and take care of patients with COVID and staff who are familiar with the procedures of wearing PPE and gowning and keeping healthcare workers safe,” Dionne-Odom said. “So we’ve used everything that we’ve learned since March, working really hard to be able to take care of more patients. That said, you have to remember that every bed that we’re using today for someone with COVID can potentially be a bed that someone else would need, who’s having a stroke or having a heart attack.” 

“These problems are continuing to happen, and they need ICU-level care too,” she continued. “So we don’t want to continue to see an increase in the COVID cases because that has the indirect effect of affecting how we care for all the other patients with serious diseases.” 

Dionne-Odom said that they know from experience that some of those being hospitalized for the virus will die in the coming weeks, “so we’re all watching the next several weeks very cautiously.” 

Testing across the state has increased in recent weeks, but so has the percentage of tests that are positive, a sign that not enough testing is being done, and cases are going undetected. 

Dionne-Odom said many cities across the southeast have high testing positivity rates of between five percent and 15 percent, and in some cases as high as 20 percent.

“And what that number means is when you’re getting one of five tests back positive, is that there’s a lot of spreading infection in the community that you are not detecting,” Dionne-Odom said. 

Alabama’s seven-day percent positivity rate was 14.69 on Wednesday. Public health experts say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected. 

In Jefferson County, as of Wednesday, the percentage was roughly 14 percent.

While the majority of hospitalized patients are older, UAB does have COVID-19 patients in their 30s who are very ill and in ICU units, Dionne-Odom said.

“So the message is still true that this disease tends to impact older adults more than younger adults, but if you’re 20, 30, 40, especially if you have an underlying condition, but even if you don’t, you’re not immune from this disease. You’re still at risk of having severe outcomes,” Dionne-Odom said.

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