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Group organizes to support, promote Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the most bio-diverse body of water in the world

Chip Brownlee

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Britton Bonner, chairman of the board of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, speaks at an announcement of the Alabama Delta Alliance. (Contributed)

A new group is organizing to support Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the most bio-diverse body of water in the world.

The Alabama Delta Alliance is coming together to promote the delta, which is America’s second largest Delta at about 406 square miles, has a watershed that includes the vast majority of Alabama and has been designated a National Natural Landmark.

Individuals, organizations and businesses who want to promote and enhance the ecological wetland are coming together to organize the group.

“The Alabama Delta Alliance is a group that shares a deep appreciation for the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and the many benefits it offers the people of this state,” said Britton Bonner, chairman of the board of the Coastal Alabama Partnership. “Our goal is to build a robust, diverse coalition and effort focused solely on promoting the MTRD region —now and in the future.”

The delta is one of Alabama’s main remaining natural terrains and has been at the center of disputes between conservationists and developers and business interests.

Including parts of Baldwin, Clarke, Mobile, Monroe and Washington County, the area has a footprint that spans a huge chunk of South Alabama.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson called the initiative “an idea whose time has come.”

“The delta is a hugely untapped resource for eco-tourism,” he said.

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Dozens, if not hundreds, of interconnected stream systems, floodplains, swamps, bayous, lakes and forests paint the land in the delta and create a maze of natural wonders that are home to more than 500 plant species, 300 birds, 126 fishes, 46 mammals, 69 reptiles and 30 amphibians.

“Our newly created effort will serve as a resource to further educate the public on the biological and ecological diversity of the MTRD, the expansive flora and fauna, as well as the many recreational opportunities available to all regardless of interest or income level,” said state Rep. Randy Davis, whose legislative district abuts the delta. “A major goal of our effort will be to catalog the many access points, boat ramps, trails, local businesses and other important destinations the public will want to have at their fingertips when planning a trip in the MTRD.”

One goal of the Alabama Delta Alliance is to encourage people to learn more about the delta in the hopes they will be inspired to visit the area.

The Alliance has created a new website as a tool for both visitors and residents alike, at www.alabamadelta.com, with the goal of promoting ecotourism in the area.

The website includes a history of the delta, places to visit and information about alliance and steering committee members who are committed to the area.

“Our website will be representative of the diverse people and organizations that are working with us,” said Russell Ladd, a steering committee member. “The interactive map will serve as a great resource that we can promote through social media and other digital channels, encouraging more visitation and driving ecotourism in the region.”

The organization has the support of more than 40 members from across the state and a steering committee made up of what the new alliance says are  “long-time delta supporters.”

Despite concerns from conservationists who are worried about the effects of upstream dams on stream pollution, stream flow, sediment loads, a decline in fish populations and the effects of invasive plant and animal species, steering committee members are said to believe that state and local management practices are enough to protect and expand access to the MTRD region.

The alliance says that federal designations and oversight come with limitations on access and management of those properties.

The group argues that it’s important to maintain the quality of life and outdoor recreational heritage by continuing to allow the state to manage the delta.

“Our goal is to protect the many natural resources and the vast biological diversity that the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta enjoys,” Ladd added. “By getting involved in our effort, people are ensuring that we can continue to provide these important lands all throughout the region for future generations to enjoy.”

 

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Health

ADPH investigating cases in Chambers as county emerges as state’s worst hotspot

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Public Health is investigating and performing contact-tracing in Chambers County as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county made another jump Thursday.

The number of positive confirmed cases in the county has nearly doubled in the past two days, rising from 36 on March 31 to 66 on April 2. The county has the highest number of cases per capita of any county in the state.

As of Thursday afternoon, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Chambers County per 100,000 people rose to 198 — more than three times the number in Jefferson County, the area of the state with the most total cases at 318.

The number of cases per 100,000 people in Jefferson County — the most populous of the state’s 67 counties — sits at 48.

Dr. Karen Landers, the assistant state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Thursday that the department is still investigating what might have contributed to such a high number of infections.

“We’re looking at that data,” Landers said. “At the moment, we do not have an indication specifically that we can discuss in terms of absolute linkage, but we are looking very closely at that data. And certainly, contact tracing is part of our review to see how those cases might be related.”

The high number of cases in East Alabama could be attributable to a higher rate of testing. East Alabama Medical Center has submitted about 1,325 tests to the state’s lab as of Wednesday, a hospital spokesperson said. It’s unclear how many tests have been performed in the state because not all commercial labs are reporting their negative tests.

“We followed up with our Health Alert Network asking that all information be input to this,” Landers said. “We know that some commercial labs report to us and some don’t.

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Asked whether the state should require commercial labs to report their negative results, Landers said, “This would be a decision for our state health officer to consider.”

Neighboring Lee County has the second-highest number of cases per 100,000 people at 55. There are 91 total cases in Lee County.

Epidemiologists at ADPH are contact-tracing all positive cases in the state. But Chambers County appears to be a particular area of concern.

The rising number of cases in East Alabama is putting increasing strain on East Alabama Medical Center, where 30 patients were hospitalized as of Wednesday and an additional dozen are hospitalized with a suspected case of the virus.

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Alabama hospitals facing “dire” equipment shortages

Chip Brownlee

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Every morning the team at UAB Hospital gets a report on the number of patients who come into the hospital infected with COVID-19 and their status. Then the doctors and other health care professions on the team receive an update on the number of days they have left before their supply of personal protective equipment runs out.

“The situation is dire,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, the director of the division of infectious diseases at UAB, during a virtual town hall with Sen. Doug Jones Thursday. “It is not just masks. It’s gloves. It’s hand sanitizer. It’s gowns.”

In some of the PPE categories, the number of days left before supplies run out is in the single digits. The hospitals may get new shipments of supplies, but if the situation deteriorates, the shortages might worsen.

“I don’t want to underplay the real threat that we — just like New York City and other hospitals — could be running dangerously short on those things soon. I think it is of the utmost importance that people understand how important that situation is,” Marrazzo said.

Marrazzo also serves on Gov. Kay Ivey’s COVID-19 task force. She said businesses across the state are enlisting to take up the challenge, but the threat that Alabama’s hospitals could run out before supplies can be refilled is real.

“This is not a hypothetical scenario,” Marrazzo said. “This is real. And these are the people who are working to take care of you and your family in our communities every single day, who are being asked to be concerned, and sometimes even make decisions about who gets to use the various degrees of PPE.”

Hospitals across the state — including East Alabama Medical Center in hard-hit Lee County — have been asking for donations of masks, gowns, gloves, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes and other necessities as a nationwide shortage of these essential medical supplies continues.

The Alabama Department of Health is not currently releasing the number of patients hospitalized in the state, but an analysis by APR yesterday showed that more than 120 COVID-19 positive patients are hospitalized in ten of the state’s largest hospitals.

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The number statewide is surely higher.

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo

At UAB alone, there are 58 patients hospitalized — about a third of them on ventilators or ICU care, Marrazzo said. At EAMC, as of Wednesday, there were 30 positive COVID-19 patients and a dozen more suspected of having the virus. Hospitals as small as the Lake Martin Community Hospital in Dadeville are treating COVID-positive patients.

“What we’re seeing is very similar to what other hospital systems are seeing,” Marrazzo said. “We are in good shape right now, and people are working tirelessly … to make sure we have the surge capacity to figure out if we do exceed the number of beds, how we deal with that.”

The number of inpatients in the state’s hospitals is currently manageable, officials have said, after elective procedures and other non-essential medical procedures were canceled to free up beds, but hospitals are still facing a national supply shortage, and the number of patients could begin spiking soon.

Estimates from the University of Washington project that Alabama has little more than two weeks to prepare for the peak of hospitalizations.

“Alabama is critically unprepared and under-resourced to weather the storm that we’re in the midst of, and it could get worse,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama. “States are competing against one another and against FEMA for life-saving equipment. That doesn’t need to be this way. We should have done better. We can do better.”

Alabama is still waiting on 20,000 units of testing supplies and kits, Jones said. Alabama has also asked for one million N95 protective masks and 2 million surgical masks, but FEMA has said that Alabama will only receive 152,000 of the N95 masks and 362,000 of the surgical masks it has requested.

The national stockpile is “woefully inadequate,” Jones said, adding that it was disturbing that more than 5,500 masks already received from the national stockpile were rotted and expired in 2010, according to a report from the Montgomery Advertiser.

The state has requested 200 ventilators, though estimates suggest the state may need more than a thousand ventilators if the outbreak worsens. Jones said the state is going to make additional requests, but there are only 10,000 ventilators in the national stockpile and in the U.S. Department of Defense surplus. Every other state in the country is also requesting these supplies.

“I hope that they will put Alabama at the top of the list so that we can get ahead of what we know we’re going to need,” Jones said. “We need to have more.”

A lack of testing supplies in Alabama has made grasping the scale of the outbreak difficult. In Mobile, officials have had difficulty getting needed supplies to test in the region nearest to a deadly and growing outbreak in Louisiana. In Huntsville, officials had to close a drive up testing site because they were not able to get supplies.

The CEO of Huntsville Hospital called the nationwide lack of testing materials a “travesty” earlier this week.

Thousands of units of testing materials and kits are coming, Jones said, “but we need millions,” he said. “There’s an alarming lack of tests in underserved and African-American communities. There’s not enough information about when and how these communities are going to get tested.”

Jones did not place blame on the Alabama Department of Public Health but said the problem is national — and international — in scope.

“It is not because the state is not working hard. They’re working 24 hours a day and they’re trying,” Jones said. “It’s just that the tests have not been available.”

The senator also called on President Donald Trump to issue further orders under the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce needed medical supplies.

“It is unfortunate when you’re pitting one state against the other, one hospital within a state against the other, and one country against the other,” Jones said. “So, we haven’t had that coordination out of the administration. I’m hoping that’s going to change as the Defense Production Act comes up with ventilators. I’m hoping that we will see that more with production of masks [and other PPE].”

But Jones did call on Gov. Kay Ivey to implement a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. He said the state should take aggressive measures to limit the spread of the virus before the situation worsens. Marrazzo echoed that call.

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Gov. Ivey OKs release of some parole violators in jails

Chip Brownlee

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Gov. Kay Ivey is allowing the release of some alleged probation and parole violators in the custody of jails across the state. She’s also issued a number of new directives to free up health care resources.

The measures are intended to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and prepare for a rise in hospitalizations.

In a new executive order, Ivey is allowing sheriffs and local officials across the state to release some inmates being held in jails on alleged probation or parole violations if those inmates have been in jail custody for more than 20 days without a parole or probation hearing.

Violators who are being held on new criminal charges or other criminal charges aren’t eligible for release, according to the order, which mainly applies to those in custody on technical violations.

If a hearing is not held within 20 days, the sheriff shall release the violator unless they are being held on other criminal charges.

“Because the conditions of jails inherently heighten the possibility of COVID-19 transmission, I find that it would promote the safety and protection of the civilian population to allow local officials to reduce the number of local inmates being held in county jails in a way that does not jeopardize public safety,” Ivey wrote in her order.

The order does not apply to inmates in state prisons.

You can read Ivey’s full order here.

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In the same modified executive order, Ivey ordered state agencies to allow for an expanded scope of practice for health care workers like nurses, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. Experts fear there may not be enough health care practitioners to care for the number of patients that may require hospitalization and inpatient care.

This part of the order, intended to reduce strain on medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients, will relax but not completely eliminate the degree of supervision required for these non-M.D. health care professionals to care for patients.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rises and hospitals begin to feel the strain of the outbreak, Ivey also directed state agencies to provide temporary waivers so hospitals and nursing homes can free up bed space and open new facilities if needed.

Additional new directives in Ivey’s supplemental order:

  • Allows expedited process for out-of-state pharmacists, nurses, and doctors to obtain temporary licenses to practice in Alabama
  • Expedited reinstatement of medical licenses, allowing retired doctors, and others who left the profession in good standing to return to practice
  • Pharmacy Board can expedite procedures to establish temporary pharmacies.
  • Notary publics can notarize documents remotely.
  • Government agencies can postpone unnecessary meetings or meet remotely.
  • Corporate shareholder meetings can be conducted remotely.
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Alabama Dept. of Corrections has tested 17 inmates for COVID-19

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Corrections has tested 17 inmates in nine of the state’s prisons for the novel coronavirus. All tests so far have been negative.

Five more inmates have been tested, but their results are pending.

ADOC began publishing test data on its website Thursday. It says it will update the information twice a week.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections remains committed to maintaining transparency – without compromising security –throughout the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak, and has been working to aggregate relevant data to keep the public informed about the health and well-being of those who live and work in our facilities,” the department says.

The first batch of testing data released from the department comes as a number of advocacy groups, families, former law enforcement officials and activists have called on the state to take extraordinary steps to protect vulnerable inmates in the state’s prisons.

They say that overcrowding in the prisons makes them particularly susceptible to an outbreak of the virus.

 

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