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Senator Sanford Joins Chorus of State Leaders Saying We Must Pay Back the Trust Fund

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Tuesday, Alabama voters voted in a resounding majority to plunder $437 million from the Alabama Trust Fund rather than face the stark fiscal crisis in the Alabama General Fund (which funds Medicaid, prisons, the court system, and most non-education related state government functions) today by either raising taxes or cutting the size of Alabama government to match the current revenues available to state government.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) promised the voters that the state would somehow pay that $437 million back to future generations once this current fiscal crisis is past. Senator Paul Sanford (R)ff from Huntsville joined Governor Bentley in calling for the state to pass legislation mandating that a future legislature replace the money.

Sen. Paul Sanfored said in a written statement, “As a fiscal conservative, I am compelled to find a way to pay back the Alabama Trust Fund to ensure the financial strength of Alabama for the next generation.” “I have two bills being drafted that offer both a short-term and a long-term payback option. These two measures are a solid starting point for the Legislature to build upon in guaranteeing that the Alabama Trust Fund is restored and enhanced.” 

Senator Sanford said in his written statement that one option is to stipulate that the Legislature use future BP oil spill settlement money allocated to the State of Alabama to pay back the two rainy day accounts. In 2008 when the economy first went bad, then Governor Riley drained the Rainy Day Reserve Accounts of almost $500 million to prop up the state’s bloated education budget to get through the crisis of the moment. Now that those funds are drained dry and the state is supposed to begin paying that account back, the legislature is (with approval of the voters) siphoning off another $437 million from Alabama’s beleaguered trust fund.

Sanford’s bill would use the settlement money will go to pay back the $437 million authorized by Tuesday’s vote. ”This piece of legislation also requires 10% of any remaining BP funds to be deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund before any other use in state government. 

Senator Sanford’s long-term payback option specifies that the remaining balance on the $437 million approved by Alabama voters on Tuesday be paid back on a 10-year amortization schedule at 5% interest starting in FY 2016.”

Sen. Bryan Taylor (R) from Prattville has already prefiled a bill that mandates that the money eventually be paid back but does not state how it would be paid back.

Sen. Sanford said, “Couple the above measures with real reform and restraint in State Government and Alabama will have a bright future.” 

Critics of the trust fund raid argue that the state is filling a $140 million a year budget gap with trust fund money for three years. After the three years are up, the state will have a $140 million budget gap to deal with, plus the lost interest income on the trust fund money, plus have to pay back the trust fund according to any trust fund payback plan the legislature passes.

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Alabama includes antibody test results in total test counts

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Public Health is combining some antibody test results with diagnostic test results in its total tested count on the state’s public coronavirus dashboard, potentially complicating the picture of the virus’s spread.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that some antibody test results have been included in the state’s “total tested” count on its public dashboard, but that the state is working to separate the two categories of tests.

“I think the total number does include some antibody tests, although I’ve asked our staff to sort of ferret those out and start reporting those separately,” Harris said.

Diagnostic PCR tests, which are the vast majority of tests performed currently, check for a current infection, while antibody tests, which use blood, check for a past infection.

The acknowledgment that Alabama has combined the two types of tests on its public dashboard comes after several states faced a backlash from public health experts who say the two types of tests should not be combined.

Combining the two types of tests muddies the picture and could mislead the public and policymakers about where and when the virus spread. Depending on how many antibody tests have been included, it may also falsely inflate the total tested count.

Several other states — including Texas, Virginia and Vermont — said they also recognized the issue and have been working to fix them. The CDC also came under fire for combining the two types of tests in its public reporting of testing numbers.

Harris said he was not sure how many antibody tests have been included in the total tested category, but that the state is working to separate the tests into two different counts.

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“I’m not sure what that number is but we’re going to start reporting that separately just to make that clear to the public,” Harris said.

The state health officer also said the state does not use antibody test results to calculate the percent of tests that are positive, an important metric used to determine if the state is doing enough testing and if increased cases are the result of increased testing or community transmission.

“When we look at the percent of positive tests, those are not including antibody tests at all, we’re only looking at people who were tested with a PCR test to see if they were actively infected,” Harris said during a live-streamed town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell Thursday. “And so that percent positive rate, which is the one we’re monitoring the most, is the one that does not include the antibody tests.”

On Wednesday, the CDC urged caution when seeking antibody tests because the tests could be wrong up to half of the time.

The CDC also warned that antibody tests are not accurate enough to use to make public policy decisions or personal safety decisions, despite calls from some policymakers who say the tests can be used to give people an all-clear to return to normal life.

Experts warn that getting a positive antibody test should not be taken as a license to think you are now immune from the virus. There is limited evidence about how long immunity lasts, and the test could be a false positive.

“Serologic testing (antibody testing) should not be used to determine immune status in individuals until the presence, durability, and duration of immunity is established,” the CDC said.

The CDC also cautioned against using antibody tests to make decisions about returning to work or school.

“Serologic test results should not be used to make decisions about grouping persons residing in or being admitted to congregate settings, such as schools, dormitories, or correctional facilities,” the CDC said. “Serologic test results should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace.”

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Health

Alabama health officer: More testing doesn’t account for spike in cases

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks is not totally attributable to increased testing and that the Alabama Department of Public Health believes there is ongoing, widespread community transmission of the virus.

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” Harris said. “We know that ADPH and partners we work with have managed to increase the number of tests we’re doing throughout the state, but that doesn’t account for the case numbers that we’re seeing, or certainly doesn’t completely account for it.”

Harris said the state has identified a number of growing hotspots, including in Montgomery County, Tuscaloosa County and Walker County, where spikes in cases are not attributable to increased testing but rather outbreaks connected to businesses, nursing homes and widespread community transmission.

“We know that we continue to have community transmission going on in many parts of the state,” Harris said on a Facebook town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. “We certainly identified many hotspots. … Sometimes we understand the reasons. Sometimes we do not. But clearly there’s a lot of disease transmission still going on.”

Harris said the increased daily case counts — which are increasing faster than 46 other states — should serve as a reminder that social-distancing recommendations must be followed, people must wear masks when out in public and people should avoid large crowds, even if those actions are not mandated by the government.

“Now more than ever, now that people are out in public, this is the time when they really need to follow those rules, those guidelines,” Harris said. “We need people to stay six feet apart, or more, from folks who aren’t in their own household. When people are going out into public, and particularly in indoors, perhaps into businesses or in other places, where they’re mixing with other people, face coverings, your mask of some time, are imperative and absolutely everyone needs to do that.”

The state health officer, who leads Alabama’s Department of Public Health, said the state was very concerned by photos and videos of massive crowds not wearing masks on Alabama’s beaches and Gulf restaurants over Memorial Day weekend.

“We did not like that at all,” Harris said. “I had conversations with local officials there about them and they certainly recognize and understand the dangers of that as well. They have done their best to use law enforcement to try to enforce that to the extent they can. But ultimately, we need the public to accept this. And to do this, we need the public to buy in and understand.”

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Over the past two weeks, Alabama has confirmed an additional 5,080 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 16,181. About a third of the state’s cases have been confirmed in the two weeks since the state relaxed restrictions on bars and restaurants on May 11.

Seven- and 14-day rolling averages, used to smooth out daily variability in reporting, are higher than during any point in the outbreak, meaning more new cases per day are being confirmed than ever before.

There has been no comparable increase in testing. Alabama broke 200,000 total tests performed on Thursday. But over the past 14 days, about 4,004 tests per day have been performed, on average. Over the previous 14-day period, ending May 14, the average number of tests per day was roughly the same at 4,032.

Meanwhile, the percent of tests that are positive has been rising after dropping to as low as 3 percent on May 1, based on 7-day averages of increases in tests and cases. The same metric rose to 10 percent by Wednesday.

Over the last 14 days, at least 117 people have died from COVID-19. On Thursday, the number of deaths attributable to the virus rose to 590.

“Those numbers do sound like numbers, they’re statistics,” Harris said on another Facebook town hall with Sen. Doug Jones. “But it’s really important to remember that every one of those numbers is a person. They’re someone’s parent or child or brother or sister. And so we never want to lose sight of the fact that we are having Alabamians who are dying from COVID-19 disease.”

Harris said the rise in cases is worrisome, and the state expected some rise after lifting the state’s stay-at-home order and loosening restrictions on businesses and gatherings.

“We’re going to need people to be more careful than ever,” Harris said.

Harris repeatedly emphasized the importance of wearing masks when out in public and said maybe public health officials need to do more to emphasize the importance of masks.

“People feel like a mask just protects me, and if I’m not worried about getting sick, then why should I wear a mask?” Harris said. “But a mask is how you protect other people.”

A mask controls your own coughing or sneezing or other symptoms — or just transmitting it because you’re talking or yelling or spitting. Such precautions are important because at least a quarter of people and maybe as many as a third of people who are infected and can infect others won’t have any symptoms at all.

“So, it’s certainly possible that you can be infectious to other people and not even know it,” Harris said. “So that’s what a mask is for. A mask, in my mind, is good manners. A mask is how you show that you care about people in your family or in your community, particularly those people who are very vulnerable, or seniors or people with chronic health problems.”

Masks are also important even when not around vulnerable people, because you could spread the virus to someone else, who then unwittingly could spread it to a nursing home or extended care facility.

In Tuscaloosa County, DCH Health System has seen the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 more than double over the course of a week, in part because of an outbreak at a long-term care facility in the county and in part because of community spread, Harris said.

Similar outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Elmore County, Butler County and a workplace in Walker County and Franklin County have contributed to rising numbers, Harris said.

“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said, “and yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out into the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them. There has to be transmission going on in the community for that to happen. We need to find a way to get people to take this seriously.”

Harris said the Department of Public Health is not aware of any particular origin for the rising cases in Montgomery County, however, and that officials believe the rise is largely due to widespread community transmission and in part due to increased testing.

But the increase in cases also accompanies a rise in the percent of tests that are positive in Montgomery County, despite increased testing there. There has been some controversy about Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed saying no ICU beds were available in the city, but Harris said he was “absolutely correct.”

“There were no ICU beds available,” Harris said. “We talked to the hospitals immediately upon learning about that. I think their response was that that’s correct. However, they do have some internal capacity, when they need to do it, to expand the space that they have available and take care of critically ill patients.”

In Montgomery, that has involved treating critically ill patients in emergency rooms and retrofitted ICU units, a Montgomery area doctor told APR earlier this week. But there remains a shortage of ICU beds.

“I think that the message that we want to be careful about putting out there is: clearly those hospitals have higher numbers, they have you know their normal beds filled, and yet the public sometimes hears that and thinks well if I have a heart attack, I don’t have a place to go or they’re going to turn me away if I show up because the hospital’s full, and that’s not the case,” Harris said. “And so we want people to understand they certainly still can continue to seek care, just as they always would for any kind of a problem. They should do that. They certainly shouldn’t try to sit at home if they’re concerned about a certain thing.”

But if numbers continue to rise, the situation could become a dire problem.

“If numbers go up, they can’t do that forever, and then we’ll have to have to make other arrangements,” Harris said.

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Opinion | Dodge the Economic Impact Payment card fees

Joey Kennedy

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My wife received her $1,200 stimulus payment as a direct deposit several weeks ago. I did not get one, even though we file a joint income tax return, she makes more money than I, and our money is deposited into the same bank account.

I just figured there was some kind of mix-up. That’s fine; mostly I’m patient when I’m getting “free” money. I’m not teaching this summer, so the money will come in handy when it comes.

Then this week, a lawyer friend and his wife received their stimulus money on a prepaid debit card. Luckily, my lawyer friend is a lawyer. He always reads the fine print.

More than likely, I would have thrown the fine print part of the stimulus in the trash, and maybe the debit card, too, because the whole thing looks like some sort of scam. And my friend says that in some ways, it is.

About 4 million of the debit cards were sent out by “Money Network Cardholder Services,” with a return address in Omaha, Neb. They are issued by MetaBank, N.A. There is no indication on the envelope that this is indeed the stimulus money approved by Congress. There is a flier inside that says “Enclosed is your Economic Impact Payment Card.” According to reports, the debit cards have been tossed into the garbage by people who think they are some elaborate scam or a solicitation for one of those high-interest credit cards.

They are valid, and your money is loaded onto them for you to spend like any Visa card. Except there are some catches, and this is what my friend is miffed about. He believes unsophisticated folks (that could be me) and marginalized people who receive the cards will succumb to the various fees that an unaware card user can incur.

Most services have no cost. Buy what you want, call for a balance inquiry, transfer the funds to your personal bank account, and use in-network ATMs that carry the AllPoint brand and you won’t be charged.

However, there are fees for using out-of-network, domestic ATMs ($2 after the first withdrawal), $3 for ATM withdrawals in another country, even getting a balance from your ATM, either in-network, out-of-network, domestic and international (25 cents a pop).

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If your card is lost or stolen, you’ll pay for that as well. It’ll cost $7.50 for a new card, and if you want it expedited, that’ll be $17. If I lose my bank’s debit card, or if the card is stolen (both of which have happened to me), my bank replaces the card for free in about five days. If you lose your “economic impact payment card,” it could cost you $24.50 to have it replaced in a timely manner.

And here’s where you can really run up charges: If you use a bank teller for a cash withdrawal on the card, there’s no charge for the first withdrawal, but $5 for subsequent withdrawals using a teller.

If only a small percentage of users end up paying fees because they used the wrong ATM or prefer to get their cash from a human teller, that could add up to millions of dollars for somebody up the line, and that somebody is not going to be you or me.

I’m not complaining. I’m just urging caution if you’re one of the millions of people who received one of these debit cards. Be aware they are coming and don’t fall into the fee-trap that comes with them.

I’m no financial wiz – my family and friends can attest to that – but if I get one of those debit cards, I’m just going to transfer the whole amount into our checking account. If you don’t have a bank account, and many people don’t, I would just cash it out then cut up the card.

But be aware these cards are going out, and if you’re waiting on your stimulus check, you might get a debit card instead. Don’t throw it away. Buy something. It’s what they want you to do.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

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Governor

Governor awards grants for bulletproof vests

Staff

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Gov. Kay Ivey has awarded grants totaling $46,960 to help state law enforcement agencies and the University of Alabama Police Department equip officers with new bulletproof vests. 

“Making sure our state’s law enforcement officers have updated protective equipment is vital to increasing officer safety,” Gov. Ivey said. “I am pleased to assist these agencies in their efforts to provide up-to-date models of protective vests.”

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is using $27,783 to purchase new bulletproof vests for state troopers across Alabama.

Grant funds of $12,490 will enable the Alabama Department of Corrections to purchase bulletproof vests for officers in the department’s K-9 Unit.

The University of Alabama is using a $6,687 grant to purchase new bulletproof vests for university police.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grants from funds made available by the U.S. Department of Justice. “ADECA joins Gov. Ivey in support of our state’s police and corrections officers,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said. “These grants will assist these three groups in their efforts to make the jobs of our law enforcement officers safer.”

ADECA manages a wide range of programs that support law enforcement, economic development, infrastructure upgrades, recreation, energy conservation, water resources management and career development.

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