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Byrne Concerned that Prison Swap Will Put More American Soldiers at Risk

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Criminal incompetence at Veteran Administration hospitals, the tragic deaths of five Americans in Benghazi in 2012, and now the controversy surrounding the exchange of five potentially dangerous Taliban officials for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is dominating much of Congresses attention recently.

On Wednesday, June 11, 2014 following the first public Congressional hearing on the transfer of five Taliban officials in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Congressman Bradley Byrne (R) from Montrose expressed his immense concern that the transfer will put American service members at greater risk.

Representative Byrne said: “I appreciate Secretary Hagel for spending considerable time in front of our committee today. I went into the hearing with serious concerns that our military members serving in the Middle East, and Americans the world over, are in greater danger today due to the release of these Taliban officials. Secretary Hagel’s testimony did little to ease my concerns, and actually only raised more questions about the security of Americans abroad.”

Rep. Byrne said, “Of particular concern to me, Secretary Hagel failed to provide a compelling reason why the law was not followed in regard to notifying Congress 30-days prior to the release of any Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The idea that the President can unilaterally decide that a law does not apply to him should be alarming to all Americans.”

Congressman Byrne took part in a House Armed Services Committee hearing with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The hearing was scheduled in response to the transfer of five mid to high-ranking Taliban officials in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, who had been held captive in Afghanistan for the past five years.

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Rep. Byrne said, “This investigation is not over. We will continue to demand answers about this secret deal from the Obama administration to ensure a future transfer of this nature does not happen again.”

According to information provided by Rep. Byrne’s office, Section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2014 says that the Secretary of Defense must notify Congress at least 30 days before the transfer or release of a Guantanamo detainee.

Secretary Hagel told the Committee, “I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the recovery of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, and the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. And I appreciate having the Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston, here with me. Mr. Preston was one of our negotiators in Qatar and signed on behalf of the U.S. the Memorandum of Understanding between the Governments of Qatar and the United States. Also here representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff is Brigadier General Pat White, who is the Director of the Joint Staff’s Pakistan/Afghanistan Coordination Cell and who helped coordinate the Bergdahl recovery on behalf of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey. The Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs, Admiral Winnefeld, will join us for the closed portion of this hearing. As you know, General Dempsey and Admiral Winnefeld played a critical role in the meetings at the National Security Council leading up to Sergeant Bergdahl’s release and supported the decision to move forward with this prisoner exchange.”

Sec. Hagel said, “In my statement today, I will address the issues Chairman McKeon raised when he asked me to testify, and explain why it was urgent to pursue Sergeant Bergdahl’s release, why we decided to move forward with the detainee transfer, and why it was fully consistent with U.S. law, our nation’s interests, and our military’s core values.”  “I would never sign off on any decision that I did not feel was in the best interests of this country. Nor would the President of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team.  There are legitimate questions about this prisoner exchange, and Congress obviously hasan important oversight role to play in all military and intelligence matters. As a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I appreciate the vital role Congress plays in our national security. And I will present to this committee – within the limits of an open, unclassified, hearing, and in more detail in the closed, classified, hearing – everything I can to assure you that this prisoner exchange was done legally, with substantial mitigation of risk, and in the national interest of our country.”

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Sec. Hagel said, “Let’s start with Sergeant Bergdahl’s status as a member of the U.S. Army. He was held captive by the Taliban and the Haqqani network for almost five years. He was officially listed as “missing-captured.” No charges were ever brought against him and there are no charges pending now. Our entire national security apparatus – the military, the intelligence community, and the State Department – pursued every avenue to recover Sergeant Bergdahl, just as the American people and the Congress expected us to do. In fact, as this committee knows, there were a number of Congressional Resolutions introduced, and referred to this committee, directing the President to do everything he could to get Sergeant Bergdahl released from captivity. We never stopped trying to get him back, as the Congress knows, because he is a soldier in the United States Army.”

Sec. Hagel said that, “Questions about Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture are separate from our effort to recover him because we do whatever it takes to recover any U.S. service member held in captivity. This pledge is woven into the fabric of our nation and its military. As former Central Command Commander Marine General Jim Mattis recently put it, “bottom line, we don’t leave people behind, that is the beginning and that is the end of what we stand for … we keep faith with the guys who sign on, and that is all there is to it.”

Sec. Hagel said, “The Army will review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sergeant Bergdahl. Like any American, Sergeant Bergdahl has rights, and his conduct will be judged on facts – not political hear-say, posturing, charges, or innuendo. We owe that to any American and especially those who are members of our military and their families. Like most Americans, I’ve been offended and disappointed in how the Bergdahl family has been treated by some people. No family deserves this. I hope there will be sober reflection on people’s conduct regarding this issue and how it relates to the Bergdahl family.”

Sec. Hagel said, “In 2011, the Obama administration conducted talks with the Taliban on a detainee exchange involving the five Taliban detainees that were ultimately transferred after the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. These talks – which Congress was briefed on in November of 2011 and January of 2012 – were broken off by the Taliban in March 2012. We have not had direct talks with the Taliban since this time. In September of 2013, the Government of Qatar offered to serve as an intermediary, and in November, we requested that the Taliban provide a new proof of life video of Sergeant Bergdahl.  In January of this year, we received that video, and it was disturbing. It showed a deterioration in his physical appearance and mental state compared to previous videos. The intelligence community carefully analyzed it and concluded that Sergeant Bergdahl’s health was poor and possibly declining.  This gave us growing urgency to act.”

Sec. Hagel said, “As the opportunity to obtain Sergeant Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sergeant Bergdahl. We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the hand-off would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory. And we had been given no information on where the hand-off would occur.  For all these reasons and more, the exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently, and quietly. We believed this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him. After the exchange was set in motion, only 96 hours passed before Sergeant Bergdahl was in our hands. Throughout this period, there was great uncertainty about whether the deal would go forward. We did not know the general area of the hand-off until twenty-four hours before. We did not know the precise location until one hour before. And we did not know until the moment Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. Special Operations Forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal. So it wasn’t until we recovered Bergdahl on May 31st that we moved ahead with the transfer of the five Guantanamo detainees.  The President’s decision to move forward with the transfer of these detainees was a tough call, but I support it and stand by it. As Secretary of Defense, I have the authority and responsibility to determine whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay can be transferred to the custody of another country. I take that responsibility as seriously as any responsibility I have.”

Sec. Hagel said, “Neither I nor any member of the President’s National Security Council was under any illusions about these five detainees. They were members of the Taliban, which controlled much of Afghanistan prior to America’s invasion and overthrow of that regime. They were enemy belligerents, detained under the law of war and taken to Guantanamo in late 2001 and 2002.  They have been in U.S. custody at Guantanamo since then. But they have not been implicated in any attacks against the United States, and we had no basis to prosecute them in a federal court or military commission. It was appropriate to consider them for an exchange. And if any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril.  There is always some risk associated with the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo.  The U.S. government has transferred 620 detainees from Guantanamo since May 2002, with 532 transfers occurring during the Bush administration and 88 transfers occurring during the Obama Administration.”

It is likely that there will be more hearings on this topic in coming weeks.

Congressman Byrne represents Alabama’s First Congressional District.  Rep. Byrne is seeking his first full term in the U.S. House of Representatives after being elected in a special election last December.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Alabama state health officer: COVID numbers are “mind-boggling”

“Unfortunately, we have very difficult times ahead,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris (APR GRAPHIC)

For the third straight day, Alabama’s new daily COVID-19 case count was at a record high on Friday, and the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients reached a record high for the fourth time in four days. Elective medical procedures have begun to be postponed in Huntsville and in Birmingham as hospitals in both cities are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients. 

“Unfortunately, we have very difficult times ahead,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking during a briefing Friday. Harris noted that public health officials were concerned in April when there were 500 hospitalized coronavirus patients statewide, and said for the last couple of days, more than 1,800 have been hospitalized. 

“The numbers are just mind-boggling sometimes,” Harris said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 3,840 new cases Friday, the third straight day the state has confirmed more than 3,000 cases. For the first time, the state averaged more than 3,000 cases per day over the past seven days. The seven-day average of 3,046 is a 44 percent increase from two weeks ago. 

Alabama hospitals were caring  for 1,875 COVID-19 patients on Friday, a 41 percent increase from two weeks ago. The medical staff at UAB is strained, said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, co-chair of UAB’s Emergency Management Committee and professor of medicine in the school’s Department of Emergency Medicine, speaking during a separate press briefing Friday. 

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“Our patient volumes of COVID-19 positive patients have more than doubled over the course of the last month,” Nafziger said. 

A little more than a week ago many celebrated Thanksgiving by gathering with others, Nafziger said. Those gatherings have been a concern among the medical community for fear of outbreaks. 

“We haven’t even begun to see those patients yet,” Nafziger said.  

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Huntsville Hospital Systems has begun delaying elective procedures due to so many COVID-19 patients needing care, and Nafziger said UAB has also begun delaying some of those procedures, many of which are serious to a person’s quality of life, such as hip replacements to ease pain. 

“It absolutely breaks my heart. It breaks the heart of our clinicians, our hospital administration. All of our staff is absolutely brokenhearted about it because the last thing we want to do is delay care for people who need us,” Nafziger said. 

Cases among UAB employees have begun to rise significantly, Nafziger said, and most of those workers contracted the disease in their own communities, and not at work, where they wear personal protective gear that’s proven to provide strong protection. 

“They are emotionally drained. They’re physically tired,” Nafziger said of UAB staff. “But at the same time, while I see that in their eyes, hear it in their voices, they also voice their resolve that they’re not going to quit.”

Testing statewide remains low. The average percentage of tests positive over the last week was 34 percent. Public health experts say it should be below 5 percent to ensure adequate testing is being done to prevent cases from going undetected. The state averaged 8,517 tests each day over the last two weeks, down from the two week average of 9,407 recorded on Nov. 26. 

ADPH reported 55 COVID-19 deaths on Friday. Over the last two weeks, the department has confirmed 380 deaths were due to coronavirus. At least 3,831 people have died from the disease in Alabama since the pandemic began.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, pleaded with the public Friday to wear masks, practice social distancing and to stay at home as much as possible to help slow the spread.  

“Don’t just think about those people who have had minor symptoms. Think about those who had an empty chair at Thanksgiving, because a loved one was lost,” Jones said. 

Harris, during the briefing hosted by Jones, said that the state is seeing numbers “much higher than we’ve seen anytime during the pandemic” and warned that the rapidly rising number of cases and hospitalizations “is not sustainable.”

“We cannot continue to go down this road,” he said,

Despite new treatments and the pending vaccines, the only tools public health has to prevent the spread of the disease are the same we’ve had since the start, Harris explained. Face masks, social distancing, hand hygiene and staying at home as much as possible help prevent illnesses and save lives, he said. 

Harris discussed the state’s plans to distribute vaccines, of which the first could arrive within the next couple of weeks, but said there are “a lot of moving parts and a lot of logistical complications that we are working to deal with” and it will be some time before the wider public has access to vaccines. 

If approved by the U.S. food and Drug Administration on Dec. 10, the state expects to receive in a short time the first shipment of 40,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Harris said. The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots, one shot to be given 21 days after the first. 

A vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna is expected to be approved the following week, although Harris said he’s unsure how much Alabama will get initially. 

The early shipments of the vaccines will be in short supply and will have to be prioritized to protect the most vulnerable, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s plan. ADPH is working to determine levels of risk among various medical workers, Harris said. 

“It’s a real mixed blessing. We’re thrilled to have a vaccine. We know it’s going to save lives … but at the same time, we’ve got a long way to go before we have enough to cover everyone,” Harris said. 

Nursing home residents will begin receiving vaccines the week following the initial shipment, Harris said. By then, there should be both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines in the state, so access should grow as those vulnerable people receive immunizations. 

In early 2021, possibly in late spring, there would be as many as six different vaccines circulating in Alabama, but each will likely be appropriate for certain people, Harris explained. Some may better protect the elderly, while others better protect younger people. 

The Pfizer vaccine will at first be shipped to eight larger medical facilities with the capability to store the drug at ultracold temperatures, as required, Harris said, and be able to administer the minimum shipment of 975 doses. Some smaller medical facilities in rural areas may have ultracold storage but wouldn’t be able to administer so many doses in time, he said. 

“So that’s clearly a disadvantage for smaller and more rural places,” Harris said. 

To help with that, Harris said those hospitals selected to receive the first shipments have been asked to administer vaccines to the at-risk medical workers in surrounding areas. 

“So they’re going to set aside a certain portion of their vaccine, probably somewhere around maybe 40 percent of the allotment,” Harris said. “It’ll be used for their own health care workers in their facility, but the remaining amount is going to be allocated to other health care workers in their area.” 

“The real solution, ultimately, for our more rural place is going to be the use of the Moderna vaccine, Harris said, which can be stored in a regular freezer and won’t have to be shipped in such large quantities. 

Alabama has around 300,000 health care workers and between 25,000 and 30,000 residents in skilled nursing facilities, and around the same number of staff in those facilities, Harris said. It will take “a few weeks” to immunize those persons, he said. 

Both Jones and Harris were asked by a reporter whether they’d take a vaccine, once one is available to them, and both said yes. 

“I absolutely will take the vaccine, as soon as it’s approved by the FDA, and we have guidance from the ACIP, which should happen in next few days,” Harris said, referring to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an independent body of physicians and medical researchers tasked with developing recommendations on the use of vaccines. 

Harris said he’s completely confident in the process, and said the only reason it’s gone so quickly is that the federal government allowed these companies to begin manufacturing the vaccines as they simultaneously sought approval. 

“That’s really been the biggest timesaver,” Harris said. “They have not shortcut the safety process. They have not shortcut the review process in any other way.” 

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in a separate press briefing on Friday asked business owners to enforce state law regarding masks being worn inside their businesses. 

“If you are a small business owner in the city of Birmingham, if you are a manager of some form of a public store, I expect you to enforce the state’s facial covering [mandate],” Woodfin said. “You need to make sure if a person walks into your establishment that they are abiding by the state’s law.” 

Dr. David Hicks, Jefferson County Department of Health deputy health officer, said the county has had more than 500 deaths and is averaging 326 new cases daily. 

“That’s unacceptable … this season we need to spread joy. We do not need to spread COVID-19,” Hicks said. 

Woodfin implored city employees and the public to wear masks and practice social distancing. 

“We all know someone who has an underlying condition or pre-existing condition … remember that as you go about interacting with other human beings,” Woodfin said. “We believe in science. We believe in data, and we believe in those who are the experts, and we should listen to them.”

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Aderholt tests positive for the coronavirus but is showing no symptoms

Aderholt tested positive while isolating because his wife had tested positive for the virus.

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Robert Aderholt

Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, announced that he has tested positive for the coronavirus. Aderholt released the following statement after learning he had tested positive for the virus.

“As I had previously mentioned last week, my wife Caroline found out she was positive for COVID-19. (She has since recovered.) So, I have been isolating again,” Aderholt said. “As part of the isolation process, I received a COVID test Thursday to see if I could end my quarantine under the new, shortened CDC guidelines, and resume voting on the House floor. I fully expected to receive a negative test, because I have felt, and continue to feel fine, and have no symptoms. Unfortunately, I received word Friday morning that my test came back positive. After speaking with the Attending Physician for Congress, I will continue to isolate.”

Aderholt is one of the latest Alabamians to test positive for the coronavirus. At least 264,199 people in Alabama have already tested positive since March, and 3,831 have died including Alabama Republican Party Chief of Staff Harold Sachs and Vietnam War Medal of Honor winner Bennie Adkins.

Alabama remains under a “safer-at-home” order, which includes a mask mandate. All citizens are urged to practice caution: don’t leave home except when necessary, avoid crowded venues, avoid unnecessary travel, don’t shake hands or hug anyone not in your household, wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, and maintain at least six feet from people not living in your household at all times.

Aderholt was recently overwhelmingly re-elected to his 13th term representing Alabama’s 4th Congressional District.

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Merrill defends social media comments, questions motives of Black Lives Matter movement

During the interview, he blamed most of the uproar on “liberal, white women” who have “attacked” him on social media.

Josh Moon

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Secretary of State John Merrill

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill regrets some of his recent controversial comments on social media but he refused to acknowledge that he should be held to a higher standard as an elected official and made no apologies for “defending” himself. 

Merrill took part in a lengthy, wide-ranging interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. The sometimes contentious back-and-forth conversation covered an array of topics, from Merrill’s comments — in which he encouraged one man to get a sex change — to his views on race, religion and election fraud claims. 

Merrill has come under fire over the last few weeks for his interactions on social media, and a number of civil rights groups have called for him to either apologize or resign. During the APTW interview, he blamed most of the uproar on “liberal, white women” who have “attacked” him on social media and said he wasn’t going to allow someone “to hit me over the head and not fight back.”

“You expect me, as an elected official, if someone comes up and knocks me in the head, I’m supposed to just take it? That’s your expectation?” Merrill asked. 

Host David Person responded: “My expectation is that you, as a public servant, would have a level of deportment that would be different than the average person.”

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Merrill acknowledged that he probably went too far in his responses and has since started ignoring or blocking people who attempt to antagonize him. 

Later in the interview, when asked about his retweet of a video and a “war on whites” comment, Merrill said he has since deleted his retweet and that it didn’t reflect his true feelings. But when asked about his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, Merrill responded that “all lives matter.” He then launched into a biblical explanation of his feelings. 

When Person explained the history and meaning of the BLM movement — and that it doesn’t seek to elevate Black lives above anyone, but instead merely wants to see equal value — Merrill responded by stating the BLM movement has been “co-opted.”

“I’m afraid to tell you this, but I think there’s a number of people across the nation who have co-opted what your intent was — if that was your intent — and they’ve changed the narrative … and tried to make it something else … which is that Black lives are superior and if you can’t agree that Black lives are superior then you have no place in the conversation,” Merrill said. 

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That is patently false, and the leaders of the BLM movement have taken great care to make equality and acceptance the primary goals of the movement. The false narrative introduced by Merrill — that the BLM movement is somehow racist — is a popular one on right-wing websites and TV shows, but it has been credibly debunked numerous times by numerous reputable sources. 

Merrill also addressed his controversial comments about election fraud, defended claims he made that appear to be false and talked his way around questions about Alabama’s voter ID law. 

You can listen to the full interview at the APTW website or you can search for and subscribe to the podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

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Ivey says no new restrictions on day Alabama broke COVID case, hospitalization records

“We know what to do, what works. I have no plans to shut down any businesses. No plans to shut down businesses,” Ivey said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a Coronavirus update press conference Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (GOVERNORS OFFICE/HAL YEAGER)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters Thursday she has no plans for new restrictions on businesses despite the state recording record high new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations Thursday. 

“We’ve been dealing with this thing for quite some time,” Ivey said, according to AL.com. “Several months. We know what to do, what works. I have no plans to shut down any businesses. No plans to shut down businesses. They’re doing a good job of protecting their patrons. We need to keep our folks working and earning a living.”

Ivey was speaking to reporters after a ceremony at the National Guard headquarters in Montgomery, according to the news outlet. 

“So yes, the numbers are rising. We know what to do. We know that the masks and social distancing and personal hygiene works. Folks, just keep it up. We’ll get through this. The vaccine’s coming,” Ivey said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported a record high 3,531 new cases Thursday, and the state has averaged 2,461 cases each day for the last two weeks, a 28 percent increase over the previous two weeks.

The number of people in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday reached a record high 1,827. That’s nearly 40 percent higher than two weeks ago. Huntsville Hospital had a record-high 338 COVID-19 patients on Thursday, after a string of record-setting daily hospitalizations. UAB Hospital was caring for a record 127 COVID-19 patients Wednesday and 125 on Thursday.

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Ivey issued a statewide mask order in July, when the state was experiencing a surge in coronavirus and hospitals were beginning to be stressed with an influx of COVID-19 patients. She extended that order several times, but it’s set to expire Dec. 11, if she doesn’t extend it again. 

After a peak of new daily deaths on July 31, which was nearly two weeks after Ivey’s mask order, the number of Alabamians dying each day from COVID-19 began dropping significantly, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

In April, Ivey decided to extend her “stay at home” order, which included closures of non-essential businesses, and told reporters that “all of our decisions that I’m going to make are based on data. Not a desired date.”

Ivey on Nov. 5 relaxed restrictions on businesses, including capacity limits inside retailers, entertainment venues and gyms, and eased social distancing requirements in restaurants, barbershops, salons and gyms, with restrictions. 

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“Simply put, this should be welcome news as we get ready for the upcoming holiday season, which is often the bread and butter for retail, and especially for locally-owned small businesses,” Ivey said at the time. 

Asked by a reporter on Nov. 5 how Ivey came to decide to loosen restrictions for business amid growing COVID-19 cases, Ivey said: “Well, we’re just gonna have to encourage people to wear their masks, social distancing and practicing precautionary protocols to stay safe.”

Public health experts say it takes around two weeks after a change, such as a mask order, to begin noticing differences in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Deaths are an indicator that lags even further behind new cases and hospitalizations, however. 

During the two weeks leading up to Ivey relaxing those restrictions on businesses on Nov. 5, Alabama added 22,094 cases. In the two weeks following her decision, the state added 26,752 cases. During the next two weeks, the time frame during which public health experts believe results of such changes can become evident, Alabama added 34,449 cases, a nearly 60 percent growth in cases from the two weeks prior to Ivey relaxing restrictions. 

“It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health,” a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Sunday reads. “You should have groceries and medications delivered.” 

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, told reporters Tuesday that there is a possibility that hospitals will have to set up mobile hospitals to care for the rush of patients, and that she worries hospitals may not have enough staff to care for “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.” 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield made a dire prediction Wednesday. 

“The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” Redfield said.

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