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Dean and Wiggins Out at ASU

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Friday, July 25 Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) removed Alabama State University (ASU) Board of Trustees member circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins (D) after Wiggins refused to resign for the good of the school.

ASU BOT Chairman Elton Dean resigned at the governor’s request on Thursday, July 24.

In the letter to Wiggins Governor Bentley cited his executive authority to remove the BOT member for his conduct.  Specifically Bentley said that Wiggins had a responsibility to tell ASU that his sister-in-law, Michelle Crawford, had been disbarred in North Carolina when she applied for a professorship at the Montgomery historically Black University (HBCU).  Also the Governor said that Wiggins materially benefited by his wife, Zinna, receiving $30,000 from the school to run a two week day camp at the University, Camp Eagle.

The Montgomery Advertiser is reporting that Wiggins told them that he plans to appeal his removal pending talks with his attorneys.

The Montgomery Advertiser’s Josh Moon is reporting that Governor Bentley has appointed Ralph Ruggs to the BOT and is expected to call for new officer elections sometime this week.  Mr. Ruggs is the director of the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority.

Not everyone in the extended ASU family is pleased with the recent actions by Governor Robert Bentley and ASU President Gwendolyn E. Boyd.

Former ASU BOT member and longtime ASU power broker, attorney Donald Watkins said on Facebook, “I want to publicly apologize to the entire Alabama State University family. I made a serious error in judgment when I nominated Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd and asked the board of trustees to elect her as president of ASU. At the time, I sincerely believed that Dr. Boyd was qualified for the position. I have since learned that her prior executive experience was greatly exaggerated and that her administrative skills are sorely lacking for what is required to be an effective president at ASU.”

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Watkins said of Boyd, “As soon as she finished taking the oath of office as president, Dr. Boyd swore her allegiance to Tea Party Republican Governor Robert Bentley. Bentley supports Dr. Boyd with the same vigor and muscle that George “Daddy” Bush supported Clarence Thomas. With the Governor’s encouragement and backing, Boyd immediately distanced herself from every ASU official who contributed to the University’s astounding success. She routinely treats ASU trustees like political outcasts. Her level of disrespect for the trustees and their historic contribution to the growth and transformation of ASU is obvious, insulting, and embarrassing. By removing any member of the board of trustees who discharges his/her statutory duty by questioning Boyd’s administrative actions and extravagant expenditures, Bentley has established an “Imperial Presidency” in Boyd. After Bentley forced the resignation of Board Chairman Elton Dean and removed Vice-Chairman Marvin Wiggins from the board last week, the message from Bentley to the remaining trustees was clear – leave Dr. Boyd alone; she is the Governor’s overseer at ASU; and she is untouchable. For the first time in its history, the board of trustees is now afraid to exercise its independent supervisory role at ASU. As a result, Dr. Boyd reports only to Bentley, whose demonstrated loyalty and devotion is to the University of Alabama, not ASU.  The Bentley-Boyd relationship is an “unholy” alliance. Nothing good will come out of it. The Tea Party crowd has no affinity for African Americans. Furthermore, Bentley has never brought a dime of new funding to ASU, nor has he ever delivered a new academic program to the University. His job is to protect and serve the institutional interests of the University of Alabama, and he does it well.”

Watkins cryptically threatened, “I am told that Dr. Boyd harbors a deep, personal secret. I believe Bentley knows about this secret and uses it as leverage to control Dr. Boyd. Others are starting to privately talk about this secret. I think it will come out over time.”  “In light of these factors, I have concluded that nominating Dr. Boyd as the president of ASU was a mistake. I am doing my part to correct this mistake.”

President Boyd released a statement previously distancing ASU from the controversial Watkins after ASU received a letter critical of earlier Watkins comments by U.S. Attorney George Beck.  Watkins at the time claimed that he had negotiated an agreement with the FBI on behalf of ASU.  An assertion that is being denied by Beck and the FBI.

Boyd wrote in her statement, “Mr. Watkins does not speak for Alabama State University. Mr. Watkins does not represent any executive officer at ASU. Mr. Watkins’ actions and comments do not represent Alabama State University. Mr. Watkins is not employed by ASU. As President of Alabama State University, I do not consult with Mr. Watkins or seek Mr. Watkins’ advice on any matter.”

 

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Crime

Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers reaches 51

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for coronavirus ticked up to 51 on Tuesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said just a single inmate has an active case of the virus. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Tuesday said three more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed cases among staff in that facility to seven. 

There were also two additional confirmed cases among workers at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, ADOC said in the press release, bringing the total of infected staff there to eight. 

One worker at the Kilby Correctional Facility, one at the Bullock Correctional Facility and another at the Ventress Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19.

Kilby prison has had four confirmed cases among staff, Bullock prison two and at Ventress prison there have been 11 workers to self-report positive test results. 

While the number of confirmed cases among staff have continued to rise in recent weeks, cases among inmates have not.

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Of the nine inmates in seven state facilities who’ve tested positive, just one had an active case as of Tuesday, according to ADOC. 

Of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, 143 had been tested for coronavirus as of May 22, the last day ADOC has updated testing numbers. 

ADOC’s announcement Tuesday of more cases among staff comes after Alabama saw its largest single-day increase on COVID-19 cases on Monday when 646 new cases were confirmed. 

ADOC halted visitation and volunteer entries at state facilities on March 19 to help prevent outbreaks in the state’s dangerously overcrowded facilities, but the department is working on a plan to resume “some facility operations thoughtfully, including visitation and volunteer entry, but has not yet established a definitive timeline,” according to the release. 

“Once established, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised of our anticipated plans and timeline to resume these activities safely in a manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus,” the statement reads. “A primary goal and concern of the ADOC is protecting the safety, security, and well-being of our inmates, staff, and the public during these unprecedented times. We continue to monitor COVID-19’s evolving impact closely on our correctional system, the state, and the country while we assess and analyze additional data in order to make informed and strategic operational decisions.”

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National

“We’re surging:” Alabama reports largest COVID-19 increases to date

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama saw its largest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases Monday, according to the state, as daily case counts continue an upward trend and hospitals across the state report increasing hospitalizations.

Alabama blew past 15,000 confirmed cases of the virus on Monday, according to the Department of Public Health’s daily case count. The state had confirmed more than 3,200 new cases in the last seven days, according to APR‘s tracking.

By Tuesday evening, the total reached 15,650. The rising case counts are concerning doctors and public health experts who worry the public is not taking the virus as seriously since the state lifted restrictions.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to have to go through some pretty tough times to drive the message home that this virus is still here, and it’s not going away,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert at UAB.

More than 400 new cases were confirmed daily, on average, during the week heading into Memorial Day, the highest level since the pandemic began and much higher than during the second and third weeks of April, when Alabama was under a stay-at-home order and expected to reach what was then thought to be a peak.

Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the state’s “stay-at-home” order on April 30, replacing it with a “safer-at-home” order that loosened restrictions. Since then, the state has twice more relaxed restrictions, allowing more businesses, churches and entertainment venues to reopen with social-distancing restrictions and sanitation guidelines.

The state saw its largest single-day increase in new cases Monday at 646 new cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s daily case totals, a little more than three weeks after the stay-at-home order expired on April 30 and two weeks after the state allowed restaurants and bars to reopen on May 11 with social-distancing restrictions.

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The number of cases confirmed per day has been rising since April 30, showing no sign of slowing. Over the past week, new cases rose faster than in 46 other states with no comparable increase in testing.

APR uses 7- and 14-day rolling averages to smooth out daily variability in reporting. APR‘s daily totals vary from ADPH’s because APR tracks only the daily change to the cumulative case count.

Both our rolling averages and the averages calculated by the Department of Public Health are higher than they ever have been, meaning that more new cases are being confirmed per day than ever before.

At least 580 people have died from COVID-19 in Alabama. At least 76 deaths have been reported in the last seven days.

“We had done a pretty good job of avoiding the surge in cases that concerned us a month ago about overwhelming the hospital,” Saag said. “But now we’re headed right back to where we were on April 1, and I don’t think there’s any appetite among the general population nor of our political leaders to do much more about it.”

Testing has increased since May 1, more than doubling from 94,406 total tests performed on May 1 to nearly 194,000 by Tuesday evening.

But the number of tests reported per day has remained relatively flat since the beginning of the month at between 3,500 and 4,500 tests per day, based on 7- and 14-day averages, which is still far below the level of testing public health experts say is needed.

Public health experts who spoke with APR said the increase in new cases is concerning and is not simply the byproduct of increased testing.

“We know that if we’re testing the right number of people that the percentage of positive tests should be about 5 percent or so,” Saag said. “So if we’re in an area like a lot of our counties in Alabama, where the percent positive test rate is 20 percent or 13 percent, that means that there are a lot more cases out there for whom there are no tests available. So, if anything, we’re underestimating the caseload.”

The percent of tests that are positive, based on 7-day averages of new tests and new cases, was as low as 3 percent on May 1, but has since increased to more than 10 percent.

Those who say the situation is under control and increased testing is the only cause for the rise in cases are just simply wrong, Saag said.

“The fact is that they’re not walking through the hospital like I am, or all the other nurses and doctors are, and seeing the entire ICU just loaded with only COVID patients on ventilators and full units in our hospital that have only COVID patients,” Saag said.

If you test more, you’re going to find more, but only if the virus is still there.

“You can test until the cows come home,” Saag said. “The problem is, there’s a lot of cases here that are undiagnosed.”

In addition to looking at the percentage of tests that come back positive, which has been climbing in the last two weeks, hospitalizations also provide are a more timely indicator of how the pandemic is progressing.

Over the last week, the number of COVID-19 positive inpatients at DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa County has doubled from 35 on May 19 to 74 Tuesday. At least 20 of those patients are in intensive care units and 10 are on ventilators.

“When the hospitalization rates increase. It’s a reflection of the overall cases going up,” Saag said.

Statewide, hospitalization numbers are not yet available for this week, but last week hospitals reported their highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

In Jefferson County, hospitalizations are creeping back up after a lull throughout much of April, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said last week. Cases are also rising again in Jefferson County.

And in Montgomery County, where the mayor and hospitals have reported a shortage of ICU beds, the patient count remains high as the county reports an ongoing, worrisome spike in new cases.

“We have places to put people, and we have got plenty of ventilators, but having said that, the intensive care scenario in the hospitals is definitely stretched,” said Dr. David Thrasher, the director of respiratory therapy at Jackson Hospital whose respiratory therapy group works critical care at all of the Montgomery area hospitals.

“The weekend before, my partner and I rounded around 140 patients. And this morning, we had 145 patients,” Thrasher said. “That is more than twice our normal volume. Normally, May is a slow month for us. The great majority of what we’re seeing in the hospital is COVID patients.”

ICU units at Montgomery area hospitals have been dedicated to treating COVID patients, and those units have been full, and hospitals have been out or nearly out of formal ICU beds, though there are enough ventilators to equip other areas to retrofit as intensive care beds.

“This weekend, there were just a few ICU beds left, but having said that, there were three emergency rooms I know of that had patients down there that we were treating,” Thrasher said.

Montgomery has seen its case count more than triple since the month began.

“We’re surging,” Thrasher said. “We have got a lot more cases than we had a month ago, and a heck of a lot more cases than we did during the first 30 days of this pandemic.”

The increased patient load has put a physical and emotional strain on health care workers and staff, Thrasher said.

“It’s very difficult, very emotionally difficult for the doctors, the nurses, the therapists and of course the patients’ families,” he said.

Typically, most patients come off a ventilator in a matter of days, depending on what the cause is. That’s not the case with COVID-19.

“These patients, when they go ventilators, it’s a very long time, and the mortality is very poor across the nation for patients once they are on the ventilator,” Thrasher said. “So it’s emotionally draining — emotionally draining for the staff, the nurses, the respiratory therapists who are in there all day with them. It’s tough and it’s taken an emotional toll on everybody.”

Statewide, the rising case counts also pose an additional concern as people headed out to beaches, pools, parties and other events to celebrate Memorial Day on Monday, potentially exposing thousands of tourists and party-goers to the virus.

“I’m not an alarmist, but I’m worried,” Saag said. “I look around and over the holiday weekend, I saw large crowds of people, and I could count the number of people wearing a mask on one hand. We could be headed for some really tough times by the first of July.”

The rise in cases over the course of this month did not stop people from going to the beach or throwing Memorial Day parties. And Google’s mobility data, which tracks cell phone locations, has shown a sustained rise in out-of-home travel since the beginning of the month.

Wearing a mask, staying away from crowds and staying at home when you can is the best way to avoid getting and, more importantly, avoid spreading the virus if you don’t know you have it.

“You can feel great today, cough and give it to me, and you may not even know you had it for two or three days, when you start to develop symptoms,” Thrasher said. “So that’s the big problem we have. We don’t know who hasn’t until after the fact.”

Masks offer a limited amount of protection for the person who wears the mask. But masks and face covering are very effective at trapping the respiratory droplets from the person wearing the mask should they cough, sneeze or spit, thereby decreasing the chance of spreading the virus to other people.

“We’re supposed to love our neighbor, and that’s one way to do it,” Thrasher said. “Someone said, ‘Well I don’t want to wear the mask because they are hot and makes me look bad.’ Well, if you don’t like wearing a mask, then you wouldn’t like a ventilator at all.”

The majority of transmission is in the 24-hour period before someone actually gets physically ill, Saag said, meaning that you’re more likely to spread the virus when you have no symptoms than once you get sick.

“How do we feel about the parents who send their child to school, knowing that they’re sick,” Saag said. “We tend to not appreciate that very much. Well, us going out in public when we may be sick and spreading this virus to other people — whether we want to take the risk for ourselves — is the same situation as sending a child to kindergarten while they’re sick. It’s the same concept. There’s a responsibility here to other people, to our friends and neighbors.”

Wearing a mask is a critical way to slow the spread of the virus without another lockdown.

“If everybody did that, maybe we wouldn’t have to stay at home so much,” Saag said. “The stay at home was a hardcore effort to avoid a catastrophe in the hospitals and elsewhere. So, if we don’t want to do that again, then at least we should be responsible enough to wear a mask in public.”

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Health

Birmingham’s mask ordinance to expire Friday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham’s ordinance requiring citizens to wear masks while in public is set to expire Friday. 

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in a statement Tuesday cautioned the public against letting their guard down, however, and said despite the expiration of the ordinance, the public should continue to wear masks while out to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The City of Birmingham implemented the mandatory face covering ordinance as an additional level of protection as the state began the phased re-opening process. I want to thank the people of Birmingham for following the law. The ordinance raised the level of awareness to the importance of wearing a face covering when in public and within six feet of other people,” Woodfin said in the statement. “While the ordinance is set to expire on Friday, we must not let our guard down. Public health leaders say covering your nose and mouth is a critical tool to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. I urge everyone to keep social distancing, wear face coverings in public, and do what you can to limit the spread.” 

City employees and guests to city facilities will still be required to wear face coverings after the ordinance expires Friday, according to Woodfin’s statement.

The Birmingham City Council, with one dissenting vote, approved the ordinance on April 28  requiring the wearing of masks while in public, which went into effect May 1. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. Failure to comply with the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in city jail. 

The ordinance had been set to expire May 15, but City Council members later agreed to extend the measure until May 29. 

The Birmingham City Council’s decision to require the wearing of masks came after Gov. Kay Ivey replaced her “stay-at-home” order with a less restrictive “safer-at-home” order, which allowed some businesses to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.

The number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus across Alabama last week was higher than during any other week since the pandemic began and increase faster than in 46 other states and the District of Columbia, according to an APR analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, because of the virus’s approximately two-week incubation period when a person could have coronavirus but show no symptoms, people should practice social distancing by keeping 6 feet from others and wear face masks while in public.

Doing so not only helps protect the wearer of the mask, but also all those around them. 

“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus,” the CDC’s website states.  “CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

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Economy

Ag commissioner concerned about collapsing beef prices

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate (R) is concerned about dropping cattle prices and the impact that that is having on Alabama’s farmers and ranchers.

“We have been very dialed into the crisis Alabama Cattle Producers are up against,” Pate told the Alabama Political Reporter. “We will continue to closely monitor this dire situation and the market impact it is having on Alabama’s cattle farmers . . . as well as consumers.”

“After I was contacted by a number of Alabama’s stockyards and Cattle producers expressing concern with regards to market inconsistencies and increased consumer prices…… I wrote a letter to Senators Shelby and Jones requesting that they join in on a push for an investigation of the meat packing industry,” Pate said. “I am encouraged by the support we are getting from both Jones and Shelby. It’s also great to see Alabama Producers joining in together in an effort to formulate a strategy to address the current situation.”

Commissioner Pate shared the April 6 letter.

“Over the last five days, I have been contacted by many stockyards and cattle producers concerning the seemingly inconsistent drastic reduction in futures prices for cattle while at the same time consumers are purchasing more beef at grocery stores than at any time in recent memory and at the same time grocery store shelves are empty of beef,” Pate wrote the Senators. “There is concern from many in the cattle industry that the large meat packing companies are manipulating markets to put cattle produces and local stockyards at a disadvantage during a national crisis. Due to depressed cattle prices and uncertainty over cattle prices multiple stockyards will not conduct business this week.”

“I understands that Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota have recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to investigate whether the large packing companies are manipulating beef markets to fix prices at a level that negatively impacts beef producers,” Pate wrote. “I urge you to join your fellow senators in calling for this investigation to make certain that Alabama cattle producers are not suffering from artificially low beef prices.”

COVID-19 has impacted many areas of our lives. That includes at the grocery store where selection of beef, pork, and chicken products can be a hit and miss proposition for shoppers due to hoarders and to less cattle, hogs, and chicken being killed because of slaughterhouses suffering high absenteeism due to COVID-19. The big four major packers: Tyson Foods, Cargill/Excel, J.B.S. Swift, and National Beef process over 80 percent of the cattle. When their daily productions dropped there was an oversized effect on cash and futures markets, because of the lack of competition and because 70 percent of the cattle they process are forward contracted. If a feedlot was not forward contracted they often could not sell their cattle at any price.

The spot market or cash market generally determines live cattle prices. Some in the industry have accused the big four meatpackers of engaging in an “allied strategy” to manipulate the spot market so that the four major companies can profit at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

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Sen. Grassley praised President Donald J. Trump’s recent call for an investigation into possible anticompetitive behavior in the beef industry. Last month, Grassley lodged a similar request with the Departments of Justice and Agriculture.

“While consumers are facing record-level prices at the meat counter, America’s Beef producers are being forced to sell their cattle to meatpackers at a loss, if they can sell them at all,” Sen. Grassley said. “Consolidation in the meatpacking industry has exacerbated the market pain on both sides of the supply chain, and producers and consumers need to know whether unfair business practices by packers are to blame.”

“I’ve called on the Trump administration to look into unfair or anticompetitive practices and I’m grateful that President Trump has made this issue a priority,” Grassley added. “USDA is looking into unfair pricing practices. DOJ must also examine if any collusion within the packing industry has taken place in violation of our antitrust laws.”

Grassley has long raised concerns about consolidation in the meatpacking industry and pressed USDA to protect independent producers.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently called for an investigation into the business practices that lead to unfair marketplace for beef producers. R-CALF filed suit against the Big Four packers last year alleging that the four companies are engaging in an “allied strategy” in defiance of U.S. anti-trust law.

Rick Pate is a cattle rancher in Lowndes County. The Pate family has raised Charolais beef cattle in Alabama for decades.

(Original writing and research by Montgomery area writer Amy McGhee contributed to this report. McGhee’s parents have a Black Angus beef cattle farm in Tennessee.)

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