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Merrill receives National Leadership award

Brandon Moseley

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Secretary of State John Merrill was awarded the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s Leading Globally Matters Locally Award Tuesday during the organization’s State Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C.

The award recognizes Merrill’s efforts to support U.S. diplomacy and development programs that strengthen the Alabama economy and helps keep America safe.

“I am honored to be recognized for these efforts to support U.S. diplomacy and programs that are encouraging international trade,” Merrill said. “If we choose not to follow the path that’s been set by investing in international relations and international markets, it puts our local economies behind. So many times, our people are reluctant to embrace that international flavor. We’ve got to make sure that we’re taking advantage of all of those opportunities that we have, from the mom-and-pop shops all the way up to the Fortune 500 companies.”

Merrill was joined at the event by about 300 current and former elected officials. The two-day State Leadership Summit is an annual event hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. The president and CEO of the USGLC is Pam Schrayer.

Merrill was one of four who were honored as Leading Globally Matters Locally Award recipients. The other three included former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker and former Florida State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

“In my role as secretary of state, I’ve made sure to give equal attention to activities here at home and abroad in order to make it easy to do business and boost commerce in the Alabama economy,” Merrill said.

According to The Global Coalition, last year, Alabama exported $21.7 billion in goods overseas and trade supporting 488,900 local jobs.

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Health

About half of Americans asked say they’d take COVID-19 vaccine

Eddie Burkhalter

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While most Americans believe a vaccine for COVID-19 will be available in 2021, only around half say they’ll get vaccinated according to a recent study. 

A leading infectious disease expert at UAB worries, however, that there’s no guarantee researchers can create a safe, effective vaccine for the virus at all, and that if a vaccine does make it to market, making enough doses to protect those in the U.S., and people worldwide, could take some time, and that without a vigilant public, the virus could infect and kill millions more in the U.S. 

“Seemingly, a large number of our population doesn’t quite comprehend the power of this pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert at UAB and prominent HIV/AIDs researcher, speaking to APR on Wednesday. “They certainly have heard enough information about it. They’re aware of it. They just haven’t translated that awareness into the meaning.” 

Saag said the impact of many people in Alabama getting the virus at one time “is where we’re headed, unfortunately.” Saag cited APR’s reporting Tuesday that shows the number of new confirmed cases statewide have been rising since April 30, and show no sign of slowing. 

In a nationwide poll of more than 1,000 Americans conducted May 14-18 and released Wednesday, pollsters found that just 49 percent said they’d get vaccinated, while 20 percent said they would not. The remaining 31 percent said they were unsure. Older Americans were much more likely to say they’d get vaccinated than those under aged 60. 

Saag said he worries that if and when a vaccine is available, many who aren’t taking coronavirus seriously, because it hasn’t yet infected them or someone they know, might be less likely to get vaccinated. 

“Why would I want a vaccine for something that isn’t real, or isn’t a major thing in my life?” Saag said. “And the second thing is, I think appropriately, is that we don’t know if we’re going to have a vaccine, but if we do, what is the safety profile of that vaccine? And that won’t be known until the large scale efficacy studies are done.” 

A majority of those who said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, or 70 percent, said they’d avoid doing so over concerns about side-effects. 

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“That’s a manageable concern, that the details will matter there,” Saag said.

President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program, announced May 15, aims to supply the U.S. with 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021, which is quicker than any vaccine has been developed and sent into market. There’s been no details from the White House as to how all those doses, if created, would be given to Americans. 

“President Trump’s vision for a vaccine by January 2021 will be one of the greatest scientific and humanitarian accomplishments in history, and this is the team that can get it done,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. 

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told the Associated Press last week that at least four or five vaccines being developed look promising, and one or two will be ready for large-scale testing by July.

“I’m not still 100 percent confident we’re going to have a vaccine,” Saag told APR on Wednesday. “I’m pretty sure we’re not going to have it in 2020.” 

Saag said the best we can hope for is that we have data that shows a vaccine for COVID-19 works by the end of 2020. 

“But think about the transition from knowing that something works to getting it scaled up in production, to a level where you have to have 300 million to 600 million vaccines available, just for the United States,” Saag said. “And this is a global pandemic so we’re talking about billions of doses of vaccine. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything like that before.” 

Traditional vaccines, which use either a weakened version of a virus or proteins taken from the virus, require much effort to produce, Saag said, which is why we sometimes see shortages in vaccines for the common flu. 

“But the vaccines that I think are showing promise here are brand new, or brand new approaches to vaccines,” Saag said. 

These new vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA), which are genetic components of the virus that are then injected into a person and can produce the protective proteins that can create immunity, Saag explained. 

“The bottom line is the mRNA vaccines will be much, much easier to mass produce,” Saag said. “So I think there’s some hope, if we do have something by the end of this year, that we could in the next year ramp it up, with the right kind of commitment and resources, which will be motivated to do.” 

Without a vaccine, the picture becomes much more dire, he explained. To get the epidemic under control we’ll need at least 70 percent of the population to have immunity, Saag said. 

“That’s the so-called herd immunity that you hear so much about,” he said. “For us to get to that point without a vaccine is going to take a lot of pain.” 

Deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 were approaching 100,000 on Wednesday, and the number of confirmed infections were at 1.6 million. 

For the U.S. to get to 70 percent immunity around 210 million people would have to have been infected with COVID-19, Saag said. 

“And when you translate that into deaths, even if the death rate is 1 percent, we’re dealing with over 2 million people who will have died,” Saag said. 

Saag said what’s important for the public to understand is that “this epidemic does not go away unless we get enough people immune. Unless and until we get herd immunity.” 

An effective oral antiviral drug, if researchers can produce one, could be used very early in the course of a COVID-19 infection, Saag said, which could have an impact on outcomes for COVID-19 patients. 

“That would abort the progression to more severe disease,” Saag said of an oral antiviral drug. 

The giant pharmaceutical company Merck and Miami-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on Tuesday announced the two companies had entered into an agreement to develop the antiviral drug EIDD-2801, which is in early clinical development to treat COVID-19 patients, according to Businesswire

“I think that that would be the other solution, if we don’t get a vaccine, and I think it’s, I don’t know, a 50 percent chance we’ll get one that works and is safe,” Saag said. 

Vaccines are hard to develop, Saag said, adding that for 35 years researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine for HIV. 

“Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which is the number one cause of childhood breathing trouble, we’ve tried for 20 years. We’re close on that one but we haven’t got it yet,” Saag said. 

“I think this particular virus has a profile that gives me some hope, unlike HIV, which is much more difficult, but I think while we’re waiting for a vaccine the development of effective antiviral therapy may be our bridge,” Saag said. “Without either of those, frankly, we’re in for a long haul with this virus. I’m talking, potentially years of dealing with this virus.” 

UAB continues to study and treat some COVID-19 patients with the antiviral drug Remdesivir, the only such antiviral drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on an emergency basis to treat coronavirus patients. Physicians at UAB have said patients have been administered the drug intravenously improve 31 percent faster, but there are limitations with the drug’s use. 

Dr. Racheal Lee, a UAB Hospital epidemiologist, in a press briefing on Wednesday said Remdesivir can’t be given to patients who have liver problems and may be less effective for patients who are so sick that they require a ventilator. 

“I think we still are waiting to tease out some of these side effects from the medicine, but overall, it appears to be fairly well tolerated, at least based on the initial trial,” Lee said. 

“So I’m very hopeful about all the work that has been done on vaccine research,” Lee said, but she warned that there are other complications. 

“It will be very difficult though, in terms of getting everybody in the world vaccinated in a particular time frame and also to manufacture those vaccines,” Lee said. “So I think that we as Americans need to be prepared, that we may see another way of infections in the fall, and potentially be prepared that we may have to shelter in place again, if that’s necessary.” 

As researchers work to find a vaccine and additional treatments for COVID-19, Saag said it’s up to the public to act in a way that keeps themselves and others safe. 

Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision last week to loosen more restrictions on state businesses and public social life has prompted concern from health experts worried that more confirmed cases and deaths could be the result. 

“So this increase that we’re seeing is concerning to me,” said Lee, speaking of the state’s rising new confirmed cases over the past week. “And part of that may be due to relaxing some restrictions. Part of it may be not wearing masks in public or having larger events, which is what we would be concerned about on Memorial Day weekend.” 

We could go back to a more restrictive “stay-at-home” order, Sagg said, and that would likely work, but said we’ve got to find other ways forward. 

“Two simple things. One. Avoid any large crowd of more than 10 people, and two. Always wear a mask when you’re around anybody else,” Saag said. 

Despite much disagreement in the public sphere, cloth masks do work very well to slow the spread of coronavirus, Saag said. Up to 90 percent of the virus’s transmission happens through the aerosol route when someone infected breaths, speaks, sings or shouts, he said. 

Saag said people are correct when they question whether a cloth mask that doesn’t fit tightly would protect them from contracting the virus, but said “the answer is, partially” and that wearing a mask can slow the spread in another, important way. 

“It will help a little bit, but the reason to wear it is in case I have the infection and don’t know it, and I’m spreading the virus unwittingly, and that protects the people around me,” Saag said. 

Lee said what she and many others want to do is be able to send their kids to school safely and go to work safely, but asked what that might look like. 

“Does that mean masks? Yes. Does that mean continuing social distancing? Yes. So all of those things have to be part of our planning for the future,” Lee said.

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Opinion | It should be clear by now: Kaepernick was right

Josh Moon

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A lot of people owe Colin Kaepernick an apology. 

If nothing else, surely the last few weeks of horrible, horrible racial incidents have left even the most adamant Kap haters reconsidering their positions.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re thinking the man has a point: That justice in this country isn’t color blind.

And that the promises of justice and equality, represented by the United States flag and anthem, often fall well short for black men in this country. 

Then again, if you didn’t understand before now, there’s a good chance that watching ANOTHER black man be choked to death in broad daylight on an American street by a police officer — as three other police officers defended him — then you’re probably not inclined to understand now. 

George Floyd, the man we’ve all now witnessed dying on a Minneapolis street, as he begged a cop to let him breathe, did not deserve to die. Hell, he didn’t even deserve to be handcuffed and tossed down on the street, much less to have a cop put his knee on his throat until he died. 

A store thought Floyd was forging a check. A person at the store called the cops. And a few minutes later Floyd was dead. 

This, in a nutshell, is why Kaepernick began his protest several years ago. Why he sacrificed his NFL career. Why he has endured the death threats and vitriol. 

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Because these sorts of awful acts are far too common for black men in America. The prevalence of the cell phone camera has made that abundantly clear over the last several years. 

It’s hard to imagine how many of these incidents were swept under the rug in years past. Especially after the actions of other cops, district attorneys and judges to protect the dirtiest of cops have also been exposed. 

That sad fact was highlighted in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia in February. Even with video evidence, it took a new DA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation becoming involved before the two men who hunted Arbery down were arrested. 

All because one of the men was a retired investigator who worked for the DA’s office. 

Because why mess up the life of a white man simply for shooting one black man who might have done something at some time? 

But the deck stacking won’t stop with the arrest. 

If the murder of Greg Gunn in Montgomery back in 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the entire system is rigged to ensure the bad cops never face full justice for their crimes. 

After Gunn, who was walking home after a poker game in his neighborhood, was murdered steps from his own front porch by a white cop who thought he looked suspicious, the cop was — to the shock of almost everyone — arrested within a week and before a grand jury could rule. 

Other cops — even ones who privately admitted to me that the cop, Aaron Smith, was in the wrong — pitched one hell of a hissy fit when the arrest warrant was issued. They threatened a walk-out. They showed up to sit in the courtroom during one of Smith’s early hearings. The mayor of the city vowed to keep Smith on the payroll. 

And then the real shenanigans started. 

Judges started to bail on the case — eight in all. The Alabama Supreme Court issued an unprecedented ruling that removed a black judge from the case. The appointed judge moved the trial from 70-percent-black Montgomery to 70-percent-white Dale County. 

After all of that, and even with Smith admitting to investigators that he never had probable cause to stop, chase or shoot Gunn, the best prosecutors could do was a manslaughter conviction. 

And in one final slap to the faces of Gunn’s family, Smith was released on bond while he appeals his conviction. He’s out today, having served only a few weeks to this point for a murder committed more than four years ago. 

This is the system that black Americans must traverse in this country. One that leaves black parents rightfully concerned that the men and women all of us white people call for protection might just be the executioners of their children. 

The rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution are not based on skin color. But too often, the protection of those rights by cops, DAs and judges is. 

That’s not right. And all of us should be willing to say so. 

And maybe admit that Kaepernick had a point.

 

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Elections

DOJ defends Alabama absentee voting law

Josh Moon

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The U.S. Department of Justice isn’t using its vast powers to ensure the country’s most vulnerable people can exercise their right to vote, but is instead focusing its efforts on defending laws that clearly violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center said Tuesday. 

The comments, from SPLC senior staff attorney Caren Short, came in response to a DOJ filing in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several plaintiffs by SPLC, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. That lawsuit seeks to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the current pandemic and also to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and that witnesses sign absentee ballot requests. 

The DOJ filed a brief on Tuesday stating that it is the agency’s position that Alabama’s law requiring witnesses for absentee ballots does not violate Section 201 of the Voting Rights Act, because it is not a test or device as referenced in the Act. 

“It is not a literacy test, it is not an educational requirement, and it is not a moral character requirement,” Jay Town, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in the brief. “Nor, contrary to Plaintiffs’ position, is it a voucher requirement prohibited by Section 201’s fourth and final provision.”

Plaintiffs in the case have argued that the requirement for a single person with a pre-existing condition could pose a grave risk and reasonably lead to them being unable to safely cast a vote. In fact, they point out in the lawsuit instances in which the DOJ, prior to the Trump administration, also had argued against states requiring witnesses. 

“Our complaint demonstrates how Alabama’s witness requirement violates Section 201 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “In the past, the DOJ itself has objected to witness requirements, but since February 2017, it has brought zero new voting rights cases.”

The “voucher” requirement was one of many tactics utilized by whites to prevent black citizens from voting. In practice, it required that any black person wishing to vote must first obtain the signature of a white person. 

Towns argued in the brief that there were differences between voucher requirements and the witness signatures, including that the witness doesn’t have to be a registered voter and the witness is merely signing that he or she witnessed the absentee voter filling out the ballot.

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Congress

Jones calls for investigation of potential price fixing by meatpackers

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, has joined other U.S. senators in calling for an investigation into potential price-fixing by the nation’s four largest meatpackers.

Many farmers and ranchers claim what they get paid to produce beef has no relation to what consumers are getting charged in the stores and that the big four beef packers are pocketing the profits, while farmers suffer and consumers struggle to pay for the meat on the table.

“I am once again calling on the DOJ to investigate potential price-fixing in the meat-packing industry,” Jones said on social media. “In this time of uncertainty, we need to protect our nation’s food producers and make sure we can maintain our food supply.”

In April, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate asked Jones and Sen. Richard Shelby to ask for an investigation.

Ag commissioner concerned about collapsing beef prices

Jones and the other Senators sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

“We have heard growing concerns from cattle producers and feeders in our states about troubling practices in the cattle industry that the COVID-19 national emergency has intensified, including allegations of market manipulation and coordinated behavior harmful to competition,” the Senators wrote.

“These serious claims have been relayed in a request for further inquiry by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) from eleven state attorneys general this past week, in addition to a number of letters from Senators on the matter,” the letter states. “We support these calls to action and request that the DOJ investigate suspected price manipulation and anticompetitive behavior in the highly concentrated cattle industry, in order to identify more clearly the factors contributing to a dire situation for producers.”

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Four meatpackers — Tyson Foods, Cargill/Excel, JBS Swift, and National Beef — process over half of the cattle that are butchered in this country and there are a number of regulatory barriers that make entering the industry both expensive and time-consuming.

“The lack of competition in the meatpacking industry has resulted in a vulnerable beef supply chain, which the current national emergency has destabilized further,” the senators wrote. “Recent pricing discrepancies between fed cattle and boxed beef are pushing cattle producers and feeders to the brink, adding to the longstanding concerns stemming from the state of competition among beef packers. Since February, we have seen live cattle prices slump by more than 18 percent, while wholesale beef prices have increased by as much as 115 percent during the same period.”

With warm weather and more people spending much more time at home rather than at restaurants, the demand for beef and other meat should be at all-time highs.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughter plants have meant that fewer cattle and hogs have been butchered. This has led to a decrease in the prices that farmers and ranchers receive for their animals while the price of boxed beef that the packers sell to the grocery stores has increased substantially.

Most Alabama cattlemen own acreage of grassland and a herd of mature cows. The cows and the bull do what they do naturally and most years each cow has one calf.

The cow cares for the calf to weaning at 180 to 290 days (205 is average) and the rancher sells the calves, usually at an Alabama livestock auction.

Buyers from the plains states come to purchase the 450- to 650-pound calves, which are called “feeder calves.” They go west to be stockered and finished, usually at a feedlot. Finished, also called fat, cattle are then processed — more than 80 percent of the time by one of the big four packers.

Sunday afternoon, the Alabama Political Reporter spoke with Callahan Parrish, a fourth-generation Cattle Farmer. Callahan also owns the Cullman Stockyard and is emerging as an industry advocate.

“The pandemic has unmasked many fundamental problems associated with the current beef production model,” Parrish said. “Industry infrastructure, competitive market access for our producers and food security issues top this list.”

In 2009, the average retail price of boneless sirloin steak was $5.68 per pound. In 2010, it climbed to $6.07 per pound. By 2015, it was $8.29. In 2019, it was $8.48.

The cattle market is much more volatile from week to week, but in 2009 the average liveweight price for a feeder calf was approximately $.94 a pound. It has risen to only $1.43 by 2019.

In the last 12 months the feeder calf price has traded at a high of $1.49 on October 28 all the way down to a low of $1.08 on March 31 at the height of the COVID-19 panic, the lowest the feeder calf price has been on the exchange since October 2010.

Feeder cattle have rebounded somewhat in May and they closed on Tuesday at $1.33. There was a brief two year period from late 2013 to late 2015 where feeder calf prices soared.

When prices crashed in the winter of 2015 — and never came back — the retail price of beef stayed high even though ranchers have gotten less than $1.61 per pound in these last five and a half years.

Those are the Chicago Mercantile Exchange prices. Most Alabama cattlemen do not get those prices. The big packers are located out west in Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska as are most of the feedlots so they tend to buy southern cattle at a discount.

Using last week’s USDA feeder calf market report, last week in Alabama steers, medium and large frame thick steers, weighting 550 to 600 pounds, were trading at between $1.20 per pound and $1.37 per pound, depending on what day and what stockyard.

At the same time in Oklahoma the same weight and classification of OK steer calves were trading at $1.4764. Advantage Oklahoma rancher $110.63 per calf.

The same week medium and large frame average heifers weighing 550 to 600 pounds were selling for $1.01 to $1.18 per pound in Alabama. In Oklahoma they were trading at $1.248. Advantage Oklahoma rancher.

The spread might not be this great every week, but in this example a rancher who sold 100 calves, 50 of them heifers and 50 of them steers, would have made $9,953 more if he were the typical Oklahoma rancher versus the typical Alabama rancher.

According to the same USDA report, there were some loads of 600 to 700 pound Alabama heifers trading at below $.90 a pound and we are off of the bottoms that farmers and ranchers experienced in March and April, where prices were disastrously low in many instances.

“We are seeing a lot of our local producers hurting right now due to extreme and unprecedented market volatility,” Parrish said.

This is because our cattle are not processed or fed out in Alabama, but instead are bought by order buyers and shipped out west at a profit. Some ranchers speculate that the Big Four packers are cooperating to set the spot or cash market price for cattle as low as they can, while selling beef at an artificially high price to American consumers.

Some cattlemen have asked for the DOJ to investigate. Last year, the producer group R-CALF filed suit against the Big Four packers alleging unfair trade practices. Southern cattle face continued price discrimination versus plains, Midwest, Texas, and western cattle.

The Big Four packers process all the cattle out west, mix it with Mexican and Canadian calves, another move some cattlemen suggest is to drive down the spot price, and then ship all of that processed beef back to Alabama and the rest of the country. Some cattlemen have suggested that Alabama needs its own packing plants and feedlots to keep the beef closer to consumers.

“Lack of state infrastructure and increasing import issues are adding insult to this injury,” Parrish said. “Alabama Cattle Farmers, retailers and consumers are feeling the heat. As the temperature continues to rise . . . the conversations are getting louder. Not only are the conversations getting louder . . . they are getting exciting.”

We have spent a lot of time talking about agriculture & the importance of protecting our food supply, but the reality is that the farming industry is being left behind & they stand a lot to lose during this pandemic. We must prioritize our farmers & protect our food supply chain.

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

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