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House concurs on Education Budget, passes bonus money for education retirees

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives voted to concur with the conference committee version of the Education Trust Fund budget. The House also passed legislation giving Alabama’s Education retirees a one-time bonus check.

House Bill 175, the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget, had already passed both Houses of the Alabama Legislature; but each House had passed a different version of the ETF. A conference committee had been appointed to iron out the mostly minor differences between the two versions of HB175.

HB175 was sponsored by State Representative Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, who chairs the House Ways and Means Education Committee that is tasked with writing the ETF each year. Alabama is unique in that it has two budgets: one dealing with education, the ETF, and one dealing with non-education spending the state General Fund budget.

Alabama also has billions of dollars in other revenues that are earmarked for specific purposes that do not show up in the budgeting process. Fuel taxes for example go to the Department of Transportation and a portion goes to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for patrolling the highways.

The Secretary of State’s office does not even get an appropriation from either budget as Secretary John Merrell has been able to operate his department off of the corporate filing fees and other revenues that the Department collects.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is funded entirely through utility taxes and then sends the surplus back to the SGF. Other agencies like the Department of Public Health, Alabama Medicaid, and the Department of Human Resources take their SGF appropriation and uses it as matching dollars to draw down $billions in federal dollars.

Poole recommended that the House adopt the conference committee version of HB175. There are some differences in the amount appropriated to a number of agencies in this version of HB175 versus the version that had originally passed the House. There are also differences in wording.

The biggest of these perhaps is wording over what happens when a new school system is formed. Poole said that this states that, “The money follows the child.” This was not written for any specific future school system and Poole did not know if any new school system would break away in fiscal year 2019 or not though did acknowledge that Gulf Shores was talking about possibly starting a new system to break away from the Baldwin County School System. Gardendale had tried to form its own school system; but was blocked from breaking away from Jefferson County by the federal courts.

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State Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, praised Poole for the work that he does on the education budget. Williams said that this was the best education budget ever.

The ETF is $6.63 billion for FY2019. Education employees receive a 2.5 percent pay increase.

State Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, complained that Alabama A&M did not get enough state funding in the version of HB175 that originally passed the House.

Poole said that the Senate added another $175,000 for Alabama A&M.  The conference committee kept that extra funding in HB175.  Rep. Hall said that she was still not satisfied with that.

The House voted 98 to 0 to concur with the conference committee report on HB175.

The House also passed Senate Bill 21 which gave Alabama’s education retirees a one-time bonus check. SB21 is sponsored by State Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried in the House by State Representative Connie Rowe, R-Jasper.

SB21 gives the retirees a $1 a month bonus for every month that they worked. A teacher who retired after 25 years of service would get a $300 check. A thirty year employee would get a $360 bonus check.

The bill was universally popular with legislators; but Rep. Rowe faced some heavy questioning from State Representative Merika Coleman, D-Midfield, who was angry because Rowe, a former Jasper police chief, had help worked to defeat Coleman’s politically correct racial profiling bill, Senate Bill 84.

SB84 is sponsored by State Senator Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, and is being carried in the House by Coleman. Law enforcement strongly opposes SB84 because of the onerous reporting requirements and fears that the bill is just a vehicle to generate law suits against police departments. The House rejected SB84 on Thursday on the Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR) vote.

Coleman and Smitherman negotiated a compromise version of SB84 with House leadership before the business day began on Tuesday. The leadership put SB84 back on the special order calendar for Tuesday, but the House adjourned at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night because they still did not have the votes to pass SB84. The Alabama Political Reporter was told that several sheriffs still strongly oppose the latest version of SB84. Smitherman is threatening to hold the session hostage, filibustering everything, unless he gets his SB84 passed.

SB21 passed the House 86-0. The bonus will cost the ETF budget $26 million. However, Rowe amended SB21 to pay the bonus in June instead of in October like the original version had called for. This change means that SB21 still has to go back to the Senate, which is tied up with House Bill 317 by Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, exempting economic developers from having to register as lobbyists.

The Senate still has to act on concurring with HB175, the ETF budget.

Some members had been hoping that Wednesday would be the last day of the 2018 Legislative Session; but the lack of progress on Tuesday may have made that goal unattainable.

 

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Five patients with COVID-19 have died at EAMC hospital in Opelika

Chip Brownlee

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Five patients who were being treated for COVID-19 at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Alabama, have died since Friday, the hospital said in a statement Saturday.

“Our hospital family expresses its collective condolences to the families of these five patients,” said Laura Grill, EAMC President and CEO.  “As everyone knows, this virus has taken a toll on our nation and world, and our community is not exempt from that. Our hearts and prayers are with these families at this very difficult time.”

Three of the patients were from Chambers County and two were from Lee County. The Alabama Department of Public Health is still investigating the deaths and has not updated their website to reflect them.

Hospital officials and ADPH are working through the process for official state determination before adding them to the COVID-19 death count.

“The ICU staff, respiratory therapists and physicians who worked most closely with these patients are especially struggling and we ask that the community lift them up today just as they have been lifting up our whole organization the past two weeks,” Grill said.

EAMC is currently treating 19 patients hospitalized with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. Five patients who were previously hospitalized with COVID-19 have been discharged. There are 22 patients who are currently hospitalized at EAMC with suspected COVID-19.

The number of hospitalized patients has more than doubled from seven on Tuesday. It anticipates more.

The county had at least 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by Saturday afternoon, more per capita than Jefferson County, Shelby County and Madison County. That number has also continued to grow. To the north, Chambers County, which falls under EAMC’s service area, has the most cases per capita in the state, meaning there are more confirmed cases per person than any other county. That county’s total stands at 17.

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Many of the patients who have tested positive, according to EAMC, had a common “last public setting” in church services.

“While there are no absolute patterns among the confirmed cases in Lee County, one nugget of information does stand out a little—the last public setting for a sizable number of them was at church,” East Alabama Medical Center said in a statement Friday night.  “Not at one church, or churches in one town, but at church in general.”

The hospital has urged churches to move online and cancel in-person services. Some churches have continued to meet, as recently as last Sunday, despite “social distancing” directives from the Alabama Department of Public Health that prohibited non-work gatherings of 25 or more people.

EAMC is urging the public to act as if they are under a “shelter-in-place” at home order, as the state has so far refused to issue such a directive.

“EAMC is asking everyone to shelter in place at home,” the hospital said in a statement Friday night. “Sheltering in place means you stay at home with immediate family members only and should not leave your home except for essential activities such as food, medical care, or work. You should not host gatherings of people outside of your immediate family. You should also maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as much as possible, wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds each time, and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.”

It’s also asking businesses that have access to personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer to bring those items to a collection site outside of EAMC’s main lobby. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

This story is developing and will be updated.

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In Lee County, more cases, a filling hospital and a critically ill Medal of Honor recipient

Chip Brownlee

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Lee County, home to Auburn University, is one of Alabama’s hardest-hit counties. Lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to rise there, and the county’s largest hospital is seeing a spike in hospitalizations.

East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika has 20 patients hospitalized with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. There are 21 more hospitalized patients, whom doctors suspect have the virus. Three COVID-19 patients have been discharged.

The number of hospitalized patients has more than doubled from seven on Tuesday. It anticipates more.

The county had at least 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by Saturday afternoon, more per capita than Jefferson County, Shelby County and Madison County. The number has continued to grow.

To the north, Chambers County, which falls under EAMC’s service area, has the most cases per capita in the state, meaning there are more confirmed cases per person than any other county. That county’s total stands at 17.

Since the onset of the outbreak in Alabama, Auburn and Lee County have struggled to contain the spread. Bars and restaurants stayed open longer than in Jefferson County, because the city’s mayor and the county said they did not have the authority to order them to close.

Auburn University canceled in-person classes beginning March 12, but several of the city’s most popular bars remained open until March 18. University officials have also had to urge students not to gather on the campus’s green spaces.

The city is also home to a growing retirement community and thousands of college-aged students who, according to data from outbreaks around the globe, are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Young people tend to survive infection but can spread the virus more easily.

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But many of the patients who have tested positive, according to EAMC, had a common “last public setting” — church services.

“While there are no absolute patterns among the confirmed cases in Lee County, one nugget of information does stand out a little—the last public setting for a sizable number of them was at church,” East Alabama Medical Center said in a statement Friday night.  “Not at one church, or churches in one town, but at church in general.”

The hospital has urged churches to move online and cancel in-person services. Some churches have continued to meet, as recently as last Sunday, despite “social distancing” directives from the Alabama Department of Public Health that prohibited non-work gatherings of 25 or more people.

The ADPH this week revised that directive to limit gatherings of 10 or more people.

“We know that being at church is very sacred to many people, but it’s also a place where people are in very close contact and often greet each other with hugs and handshakes as a ritual,” the hospital said. “With that in mind, we again are asking that church members please not gather until our region has been deemed safe for group activities.”

President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 15, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)

Meanwhile, one of Lee County and Alabama’s most beloved war heroes, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, is hospitalized in critical condition after being diagnosed with the virus. His family says he remains in critical condition as of Saturday afternoon.

He received the Medal of Honor in 2014 for his service during the Vietnam War. Adkins is one of the patients being treated at East Alabama Medical Center.

EAMC is urging the public to act as if they are under a “shelter-in-place” at home order, as the state has so far refused to issue such a directive.

“EAMC is asking everyone to shelter in place at home,” the hospital said in a statement Friday night. “Sheltering in place means you stay at home with immediate family members only and should not leave your home except for essential activities such as food, medical care, or work. You should not host gatherings of people outside of your immediate family. You should also maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as much as possible, wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds each time, and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.”

It’s also asking businesses that have access to personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer to bring those items to a collection site outside of EAMC’s main lobby. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

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“I’m completely isolated”: A woman’s COVID-19 experience, from her hospital bed

Joey Kennedy

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Tim Stephens, left, Pamela Franco, right. (Contributed photos)

For the past five days, Pamela Franco hasn’t seen her fiancé except over FaceTime. She’s at UAB’s University Hospital on one of the floors set aside for those infected with the novel coronavirus.

Franco’s room is a typical hospital room, which she isn’t allowed to leave. The exercise she gets is from walking around that limited space.

Franco was admitted on March 23. She says unlike some of the 55-plus other patients, she has actually improved every day. But she still must be on oxygen, and until she’s off, she’ll remain in the hospital.

Doctors tried to wean her off the oxygen Thursday, but she started coughing, her oxygen level dropped below an acceptable, normal range, and her oxygen flow had to be increased. Today, the oxygen flow is back to the lower setting, and Franco said she feels OK.

Franco doesn’t want to be off the oxygen again, though, without somebody monitoring her, because the consequences of no oxygen are the dry, hacking coughs that leave her exhausted but, worse, leave her feeling like she can’t breathe.

Before she was admitted last Monday, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia but was sent home when her COVID-19 test came back negative. But after that, she developed a dry cough.

The cough got worse and worse. Her fiancé, Tim Stephens, took her back to the ER, where she was met by a worker in full personal protective gear — a mask, face shield, gloves, scrubs, and a disposable robe over the scrubs.

Stephens was told to stay in the car as Franco was escorted into the hospital. “I have never seen someone cough so violently,” Stephens said. “It shook her whole body, and it was non-stop. It was scary to watch, but it was terrifying for her – like drowning in the bed.”

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“The coughing got so bad, it was making the trunk of my body contort,” Franco said. “I don’t want to say twisted. But it just made me go into a semi-fetal position.”

Stephens said she was whisked into the hospital and immediately admitted. “Like that, she was gone. I haven’t seen her since. I wasn’t allowed to even say goodbye.”

Today, if Franco starts coughing, she calls the nurse to turn up her oxygen immediately because once the cough starts, it’s painful and frightening. “There’s no phlegm,” she said. “I don’t have a runny nose. That’s the thing about this virus.”

She coughs, but the coughs are torture, not productive like a chest cold cough.

Franco is 49 and, before a flu episode earlier in the year, then the COVID-19 this week, she was healthy. She exercises three or four times a week and has been on that routine for 15 years.

“I’ve only been in the hospital twice my entire life when I’ve given birth,” Franco said. “That’s the only time I’ve had to stay in the hospital.”

Franco and Stephens have been engaged since late last year. They live on Birmingham’s Southside, and they have not set their wedding date. The couple both sell software for Birmingham-based tech companies.

The novel coronavirus knocked Franco for a loop, though. She’s getting better and believes she’ll make a full recovery, but she knows she’ll have to work back up to her exercise routine after she leaves UAB and the virus is gone from her body.

“I’m completely isolated from everyone,” Franco said by telephone from her hospital room.

Pamela Franco, left, and Tim Stephens, right. (Contributed photos)

As of Friday morning, UAB had at least 55 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and about half of them were on ventilators. Thursday, it was more than 60. Many more are under observation for possible COVID-19 infection.

“When they come in, they come in full gear.” Like her greeter at the ER entrance when she was admitted, they wear full gear: Mask, face shield, double gloves, scrubs, and the disposable robe.”

The medical staff “are incredible professionals,” Franco said. “Every day I’m seen by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. Nurses take vitals and peek into the room. They’re treating me very well. I’ve been impressed. And grateful, because I know they’re putting themselves at risk as well every time they walk into the room of any of their patients.”

As for how national and state leaders have responded to the pandemic, Franco is frank.

“My own opinion is we were very slow acting,” she says. “The only reason why we’re having all these cases now is that they were slow.

“And now it’s spread,” she continues. “We’re going to run out of supplies, medication, all sorts of things. It’s snowballing. At this point, we’re elbows deep. We need to continue the isolation, the quarantines, and let people work from home if they can.

But she doesn’t like to be negative and look backward, Franco said.

“They need to do the best they can now to get this under control and to help the people,” Franco said. “I was so impressed to see that they have canceled school for the school year. I was very happy to see that they have postponed school for the rest of the year. I feel like that was necessary.”

“I want my voice to say to everyone who reads this,” Franco said, “at least abide by the rules. Stay separate. Stay quarantined. And wash your hands.”

Strangely, two of Franco’s sisters, who live in another state, also have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Franco hasn’t seen them since last fall, Stephens said. The oldest sister was in an induced coma in ICU for several days, but is now awake, alert, and recovering, Stephens said.

Stephens, too, is developing that dry cough. He’s scheduled to be tested Sunday, but Franco said he hopes he can move it to an earlier day.

“This is not ‘just the flu,’” Stephens said. “It is a monster.”

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Montgomery orders “indefinite” curfew to slow spread of virus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed on Friday ordered a curfew for Alabama’s capital city, which went into effect immediately and will be in place “indefinitely” as city officials try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

The curfew will be in effect from 10 p.m until 5.am. each day 

“We’re doing this as a measure to try to discourage unnecessary public gatherings, Reed said, adding that the city cannot keep up the current rate of the spread of the virus. 

Reed said those who break the curfew will have committed a misdemeanor crime and could face fines and jail time.

As of Friday afternoon, Montgomery had 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Statewide on Friday, there were 587 cases and at least three deaths caused by COVID-19.

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