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Infrastructure

Ivey: “There is no pathway forward” for Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement

Brandon Moseley

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On Wednesday, local Baldwin County elected officials voted “effectively” to kill the Mobile River Bridge project. The Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) met to vote on its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), which establishes the area’s transportation priorities from 2020 to 2023.

For a decade, Mobile and Baldwin County officials have been asking federal and state officials for an Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River to relieve traffic congestion for motorists going back and forth between the two coastal counties. Currently I-10 drops into the Wallace Tunnels to go under the Mobile River.

On Wednesday the Eastern Shores MPO voted 8 to 1 to remove the controversial Mobile River Bridge and Bayway replacement project from their TIP priority list. The TIP list is important; because no federal funds can lawfully be spent on a project that local governments do not want. Since ALDOT receives federal matching dollars, removing the project from Baldwin County’s TIP project is a mortal blow for the project.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) had made the Mobile River Bridge a top priority of her administration. The Governor declared the project “dead.”

“With the action taken today, there is no pathway forward, and this project is dead,” Gov. Ivey said. “Moreover, without a project, there is no need for a meeting on October 7. I am thereby cancelling the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting.”

The project was already on life support after the Mobile MPO took it off of their TIP list last week temporarily until after the Toll Road, Bridge and Tunnel Authority meeting in October. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) plan was to finance the $2.1 billion public works project by tolling the users.

In May just about every public official in SW Alabama was for the bridge. After ALDOT revealed their newer, bigger, fancier, far more costly bridge plan, and the public, who was paying for this modern engineering marvel, weighed in just about every public official in SW Alabama and statewide was opposed to the bridge if it were paid for with tolls.

ALDOT Director John Cooper famously told residents and politicians alike that if there was not tolls there would be no bridge. The SW Alabama public, and the people they elect, overwhelmingly chose no bridge over paying a six one way toll. Even ALDOT’s later proposal of unlimited bridge usage for $90 a month prepaid did nothing to put out the firestorm of public outrage.

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The Tea Party led a coalition that grew quickly to include the Baldwin County Democratic Party, the Alabama Libertarian Party, the entire Mobile County legislative delegation, every congressional candidate, the Baldwin County Mayors, County Commissioners, every U.S. Senate candidate, and included public officials who have been fighting for a Mobile River Bridge for the last decade. The public did not want a toll bridge and ALDOT had no other way to fund this project.

Many Mobile County residents work in stores, motels, and restaurants in the booming Eastern Shores area of Baldwin County, and they did not want to pay the $6 one-way two to four times a day. They pressured their Mobile elected officials on the MPO to stop the project. Last week the Mobile MPO removed the bridge from their TIP list until after October 7; however as any casual observer of I-10 traffic patterns already knows, far more Baldwin County residents go to work in Mobile County than the other way around and Baldwin County has its own metropolitan planning organization, the Eastern Shores MPO.

While tolling the Mobile River Bridge was unpopular in Mobile County, the plan was despised by Baldwin County residents.

Every local Baldwin County elected official on the Eastern Shores MPO voted in favor of removing the bridge and Bayway from the TIP list. The only vote against removing the bridge from the came from an engineer employed by ALDOT.

Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) is one of nine members on the Alabama Toll Road, Bridge, and Tunnel Authority. Ainsworth had already announced that he was voting against the plan if it ever made it to the Toll Authority.

“Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and the members of the Eastern Shore MPO should be commended for listening to the citizens they represent, giving voice to their concerns, and voting to end the ill-conceived and fatally-flawed toll bridge project connecting Baldwin and Mobile counties,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “The strong stand taken by the MPO today should reaffirm all citizens’ belief in representative government and the power of public opinion.”

The project appeared to be moving full steam ahead with no problems at all for the first five months of this year. The legislature passed the largest gas tax in state history to give ALDOT another $310 million a year as well as special legislation modernizing the toll authority, allowing ALDOT to enter into public private partnerships (P3s) for infrastructure projects, expanding tax breaks for companies operating in Opportunity Zones (the Mobile River Bridge is in an O-Zone), and giving private toll operators the authority to suspend a motorist’s driving privileges if they don’t pay their toll bill sailed through the legislature with bipartisan support led by members of the Baldwin and Mobile legislative delegations.

While there was no significant opposition in the legislature; the reporting by the Alabama Political Reporter (and other outlets) about the details of the legislation was noticed in South Alabama by grassroots activists, the general public, and political operatives alike.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) announced his opposition to the plan and formed a Facebook group committed to the idea that the bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels should not be tolled, even if that means the project is not built.

“We started this campaign against the Alabama toll bridge on May 12 with one member – me,” Zeigler said in a statement. “At that time, people told me, “You’re wasting your time. This is a done deal. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Fortunately, I did not believe that we were helpless and hopeless,” the popular State Auditor said. “Also, our 54,000 new members did not believe we were hopeless. Now, the done deal is a dead deal.”

Powerful corporations and business interests had been pushing for the bridge for years to get cargo in and out of the Port of Mobile, which is being expanded with an expensive deeper wider shipping channel to handle large ships. Every elected official had voiced support for the bridge back when the cost was just $800 million a year and the tolls were going to be $2 or less. Legislators were told that the average motorist spends more money on fuel stuck in I-10 traffic than the tolls would have cost so would save money.

After the 2019 legislative session was over, ALDOT unveiled a new proposal. Not the $800 million bridge and Bayway widening presented to legislators before; but a taller larger bridge with a viewing platform, bike lanes, and a total Bayway replacement. The $2.1 billion project would be paid for with $6 tolls for the next 55 years. The existing Wallace Tunnels would also be tolled, and three corporate conglomerates would bid on the contract to build the costly structure, the largest of its kind in North America, and collect the toll revenue. An already skeptical public erupted and popular support for the bridge evaporated almost overnight. Elected officials who had fought for the project, in some cases for years, now became outspoken public opponents as Zeigler’s growing bipartisan grassroots opposition group grew exponentially over the summer. A later ALDOT proposal to cap total toll costs for residents at $90 a month per vehicle did little to satisfy opponents.

On Tuesday the governor sent a letter to the Baldwin County Commissioners and Mayors offering to work with them and to look for additional funding to try to build the bridge with reduced or no tolling if that was possible. The Governor told APR that the bridge was critical for the infrastructure of the state.

“The Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project is critical – not only to Mobile and Baldwin Counties, but the entire Gulf Coast Region – and would be important for the continued growth of all of Alabama,” Ivey told APR hours before the meeting. “The Eastern Shore MPO’s decision today will be to continue exploring all options to move this project forward. My Administration’s goal is to find an agreed-upon plan that both the Mobile and Eastern Shore MPOs can approve. Their support is essential to create a pathway to continue the procurement process.”

Toll bridge opponents had the momentum and the attention of their elected officials and they were not interested in any compromise.

“We reject this fake compromise,” Zeigler said of the Governor’s offer to negotiate prior to the meeting. “It does nothing toward a No Toll option. On behalf of our 54,000 members, we ask the Eastern Shore MPO to stay strong and remove the toll plan from the TIP plan at the 2 p.m. meeting in Fairhope.”

After a four hour and twenty minute MPO meeting filled with toll opponents, the Eastern Shores MPO agreed with the protestors and voted to kill the bridge.

The question today is what happens next?

“We are starting a ‘Lazarus Project’ to make sure that the toll scheme does not rise again,” Zeigler said.

State Representative Matt Simpson (R-Mobile) told Capital Journal’s Don Daly that ALDOT should rethink the project and scale it back to $700 or $800 million without a Bayway replacement and wait to see what Congress and Trump or the new President does on infrastructure in 2021.

“The fact remains, however, that Alabama’s Gulf Coast region is experiencing explosive population growth, and traffic congestion throughout the area will only worsen with time,” Ainsworth said. “I urge Director Cooper and his ALDOT staff to go back to the drawing board and come back with a more sensible and scaled down bridge proposal that releases traffic pressure without the need for tolling the hardworking residents of our state.”

Ivey said simply, “There is no pathway forward.”

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Alabama may need 2,500 more ventilators. It’s having to compete to get them

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama may need 2,000 more ventilators than it has, and it’s being forced to compete with other states to get them on the private market.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Friday that the Alabama Department of Public Health is attempting to source its own ventilators as a number of hospitals in the state are already struggling and asking for more.

The state requested 500 ventilators from the federal government through the Department of Health and Human Services and the national strategic stockpile. It asked for 200 of them to be delivered urgently.

“HHS has indicated that they’re not going to fulfill that anytime soon because they’re still taking care of places like New York City,” Harris said in an interview with APR.

When Alabama nears an expected surge — say 72 hours before hospitals are expected to be overwhelmed with patients requiring life support — they may be able to make the extra ventilators available.

So Alabama, like a number of states, is being forced to try to source ventilators on its own through the private market, where hundreds of hospitals, all the other states and other countries are trying to do the same.

Harris said he signed a purchase order Thursday for 250 more ventilators.

“We’re waiting to see, and then there are others that we’re waiting to hear from,” Harris told APR. “We’re doing our best to try to source these in any way that we can.”

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“We’re attempting to source those ourselves, but as you know, all the states are looking to source their own and in some measure competing with each other,” he said a press conference Friday evening when Gov. Kay Ivey announced a shelter in place order.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones said Thursday that Alabama will likely make additional requests, but there are only 10,000 ventilators in the national stockpile and in the U.S. Department of Defense surplus. And with every other state in the country also requesting these supplies, the federal government has said that states should not rely on the national stockpile to bolster their ventilator capacity.

By Friday, nearly 1,500 people were confirmed positive with the virus. At least 38 have died. Dire models from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington — models that influenced the state’s decision to issue a stay-at-home order — project that by mid-April, Alabama could have a massive shortage of ventilators and hospital beds.

“The timeline I think makes sense and the time when we’re expected to have a surge is the part that was most useful to us,” Harris said. “We’ve been trying very hard to get an order in place with regards to this surge that we expect to happen.”

The model estimates that Alabama could have a shortage of 20,000 hospital beds, 3,900 intensive care beds and more than 2,000 ventilators.

At least 3,500 ventilators would be needed at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-April, according to the IHME model. Last month, Alabama Hospital Association President Donald Williamson said the state has a surge capacity of about 800.

The same model projects that about 5,500 people could die from COVID-19 in Alabama by August. However, the model is live and is regularly adjusted. Earlier this week, it suggested that 7,000 people could die by August.

Harris said the state, over the past couple of weeks, has added a few hundred additional ventilators to its capacity by converting anesthesia machines and veterinary ventilators for use on those infected with the coronavirus.

“Yet, even with adding all of those ventilators, going up by a few hundred units, which means to tell you that we’re still using around the same percent of all of our ventilators even though the number [of ventilators] is going up,” Harris said. “So we know that there are more patients on ventilators.”

The state health officer said some hospitals in the state are already struggling but others are cooperating to share resources.

“They are really working hard to make sure that they have what they need, and we’re trying very hard, along with the governor’s office, to make sure that Alabama has enough inventory,” Harris said.

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DOJ makes $14 million available to public safety agencies to respond to COVID-19

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town announced that the Department of Justice is making $850 million available to help public safety agencies respond to the challenges posed by the outbreak of COVID-19, which has already killed over 6,000 Americans, including 32 Alabamians.

The Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program was authorized in the recent stimulus legislation signed by President Donald J. Trump (R). The program will allow eligible state, local and tribal governments to apply immediately for these critical funds. The department is moving quickly to make awards, with the goal of having funds available for drawdown within days of the award.

“Law enforcement are – and always have been very best among us. They continue to solidify that fact during this pandemic,” Town said. “It is important that our state and local partners have the resources they need to ensure public safety during this time. These additional resources will allow that to continue.”

Katherine T. Sullivan is the Office of Justice Programs Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General.

“This is an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history and an especially dangerous one for our front-line law enforcement officers, corrections officials, and public safety professionals,” said Sullivan. “We are grateful to the Congress for making these resources available and for the show of support this program represents.”

The solicitation was posted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and will remain open for at least 60 days. The program can be extended as necessary. OJP will fund successful applicants as a top priority on a rolling basis as applications are received. The funds may be used to hire personnel, pay overtime costs, cover protective equipment and supplies, address correctional inmates’ medical needs and defray expenses related to the distribution of resources to hard-hit areas, among other activities.

The grant funds may be applied retroactively to January 20, 2020, subject to federal supplanting rules.

Agencies that were eligible for the fiscal year 2019 State and Local Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program are candidates for this emergency funding. A complete list of eligible jurisdictions and their allocations can be found here.

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For more information about the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program click here.

As of press time, there were 1,270 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alabama. 32 Alabamians have already died. There have been deaths in Jefferson, Shelby, Mobile, Lee, Madison, Chambers, Washington, Baldwin, Jackson, Tallapoosa, Lauderdale, Marion, Etowah, and Baldwin Counties.

 

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Environment

Alabama’s drinking water is safe during COVID-19 crisis, ADEM Director Says

Staff

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Alabama’s drinking water is safe, so there’s no need to hoard cases of bottled water during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“With so many things Alabamians have to worry about – their jobs, social distancing, the welfare of loved ones, gathering food and other necessities – the safety of their drinking water shouldn’t be one of them,” said Lance LeFleur, ADEM’s director. “The water they get from their tap, whether it’s from a large municipal system or a small, rural utility, is 100 percent safe due to the proven safety requirements they are required to follow and that ADEM enforces. People don’t need to fear the coronavirus as far as their water is concerned.”

LeFleur in a statement from his office points out that the disinfectants used in the water systems—as standard operating procedures kill viruses, including COVID-19. It is also a standard operation of municipal wastewater systems to kill any viruses before the treated water is discharged into Alabama’s rivers and streams.

“ADEM, through its permitting and inspections, is making sure the drinking water systems, as well as wastewater systems, abide by the appropriate, stringent clean water standards,” LeFleur said.

In a letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, on Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew R. Wheeler emphasized the importance of the public having confidence in their water supply during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Ensuring that drinking water and wastewater services are fully operational is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks,” Wheeler said. “Handwashing and cleaning depend on providing safe and reliable drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater.”

Wheeler also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognizes water and wastewater treatment workers and their suppliers as essential critical infrastructure workers and urged state and local officials to “ensure that these workers and businesses receive the access, credentials, and essential status necessary to sustain our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

LeFleur agrees with Homeland Security’s designation of essential workers.

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“From an environmental standpoint, nothing is more important than maintaining clean drinking water,” he said. “While coronavirus does not in itself pose a threat to our drinking water, nor to our wastewater treatment systems, it would be impossible to fight the virus without clean water. Our water systems and their employees are essential, and from our standpoint, so too are the people, our people, whose job is to make sure those systems are safe and well-maintained.”

Aubrey White heads the drinking water branch of ADEM’s Water Division, which oversees municipal and rural water systems as part of the agency’s authority delegated by the EPA to carry out the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Alabama. ADEM does this through enforcement of regulations, construction and operating permits, robust monitoring and reporting, and frequent inspections of the nearly 600 public water systems in the state.

“Obviously, this is a huge responsibility given us, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” White said. “Even as a lot of business and state agencies have curtailed activities due to COVID-19-related mandates, we must continue the monitoring, inspections, reporting and enforcement of the regulations that help ensure our water is clean and safe and will remain clean and safe.”

An example of ADEM’s continuing efforts to safeguard public health is the State Revolving Fund (SRF), through which the agency provides low-interest loans to public water, wastewater and stormwater management systems to pay for infrastructure improvement projects. Three such projects recently were awarded funding by ADEM totaling millions of dollars and are currently in the public comment period – $1.25 million to the Grand Bay Water Works Board in Mobile County for a new wastewater treatment unit; $1.2 million to Phenix City for a sanitary sewer lift station; and $462,000 to Spanish Fort to restore and improve a drainage canal.

“Some of these projects might not be possible if not for the financial assistance we help provide,” said Kris Berry, chief of ADEM’s State Revolving Fund section. “These projects were proposed by the local authorities based on what they need to maintain and improve their safe water managing systems, reviewed by our staff and opened to the public to weigh in.”

Created by 1982 Law

Making sure our drinking water is safe is just one of the many vital roles ADEM performs. Protecting the state’s air, water and land by enforcing state and federal rules and regulations is why ADEM exists.

ADEM traces its roots to the Alabama Environmental Management Act, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1982 to create a comprehensive program of environmental management for the state. The law created the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and established ADEM as the vehicle to absorb several commissions, agencies, programs and staffs that had been responsible for implementing environmental laws.

 ADEM, with 575 employees at its headquarters in Montgomery and regional offices in Birmingham, Decatur and Mobile, administers all major federal environmental laws. These include the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts and federal solid and hazardous waste laws.

During the current health crisis, LeFleur said his agency is following the new mandates issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and the state health officer to curtail the spread of COVID-19, which means some employees are working remotely. However, ADEM offices are operating under normal business hours while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“All essential functions of the department are being performed,” the director said. “All citizen complaints received by ADEM will be investigated, and they can be submitted and tracked electronically. In addition, ADEM staff is readily accessible, and public contact is available seamlessly by phone and email.”

ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov, provides plenty of useful information, LeFleur said. Website visitors can keep up with current issues, including notices, comment periods and contact information, as well as enforcement actions.

If past public health and public safety crises are an indication, ADEM could be called on to help in another way. ADEM trucks and vehicles are available to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to transport medical supplies and other uses. LeFleur said those vehicles helped transport supplies following the Gulf oil spill as well as in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes that struck the state.

Helping Protect Jobs

LeFleur said ADEM continues to work with local economic development offices concerning new industry. These efforts help protect current jobs and provides assistance to industry that create new jobs. In addition to the current SRF loan projects, other programs through which ADEM provides assistance include scrap tire cleanups, unauthorized dump cleanups, recycling grants, water and air quality monitoring, weather forecasting, underground storage tank monitoring and cleanups, anti-litter campaigns and brownfield cleanup program.

“The fact is, we are doing a lot that the public is not aware of to assist businesses and local governments,” LeFleur said. “That is especially important now when everyone is eager for the coronavirus crisis to end and for people to go back to work.

“That is not to say, however, that we are going easy on them. To the contrary, if they violate their permits and regulations and cause environmental harm, rest assured we are going to hold them accountable. Our job one is protecting Alabama’s water, air and land resources, and by extension public safety. That is what we are continuing to do.”

 

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Infrastructure

Cable provider wants more access to broadband as schools stay closed, go to E-learning

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that Alabama’s K-12 schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,”

For many wealthier suburban children, this will mean a transition to E-learning. For many poorer and more rural children, they don’t have broadband in their homes.

Some schools already have this in place. Other systems will be scrambling to get compliant with Superintendent Eric Mackey’s directives and parents will have to figure it out once their local schools do.

If your internet connection consists of going to the McDonald’s parking lot (sitting in the dining portion of a restaurant is now illegal due to COVID-19 fears) being a good E-learner will prove to be challenging it if happens at all.

Alabama cable providers want to supply that broadband to unserved and underserved communities. The Alabama Cable and Broadband Association welcomed the news.

“Taking into account the events of the last three weeks, greater reliance on high-speed internet service from our homes has emerged almost overnight,” said ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth, Executive Director. “Fortunately for many Alabamians, high-speed or ‘broadband’ access already existed in the home. But for many who live in rural areas of the state, and for those who cannot afford broadband service, the spotlight exposed the absence of broadband in homes and small businesses.”

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

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Even prior to the current public health crisis, Alabama’s cable providers had already been planning to invest more than $13 million to bring broadband telecommunications services to rural Alabama citizens who do not yet have high-speed internet services. The investment would be incentivized through $4.67 million in grant funding from the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund (ABAF), a state fund established in 2018 to help extend broadband services to rural Alabamians who do not yet have them.

These ABAF grants can fund up to 35 percent of project costs to extend broadband technology, would enable the full $13 million cable provider broadband investment. These grant-funded projects would be in addition to the ongoing rural broadband investment being made by Alabama’s cable providers, Roth said.

For the current ABAF grant cycle, the 18 grants applied for by Alabama cable providers cover nearly 8,000 rural Alabama homes and businesses, including 35 community anchor locations such as rural hospitals and libraries. The grants seek to serve the highest number of unserved homes, businesses and community anchor points for the least cost and best level of service. Projects including the highest broadband speeds are emphasized in the evaluation process.

“Alabama’s cable companies have been providing broadband to rural consumers since the late 1990s, and we are proud to continue efforts to expand broadband service in rural areas,” Roth said. “But bringing high-speed, broadband access to Alabama’s rural customers takes more than just cable provider investment. It takes all broadband providers across technology platforms working together for a common good as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

“No stakeholders can say for sure how our economy and society will change as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; however, this much is clear: we must expedite our collective industry efforts to bring broadband to the state’s rural and low-income citizens, so that everyone has a chance at a much brighter future,” Roth said.

While unserved communities is the focus on the state’s broadband efforts, there are also many communities with an obsolescent cable connection that don’t have enough bandwidth and speed to get the most out of the internet.

As of press time, 526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had already been found and hundreds of COVID-19 diagnosed persons, as well as people who were admitted to the hospital with symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 are filling Alabama’s intensive care wards and many of them are on ventilators. Children’s Hospital already has one of these patients.

Families are being advised to shelter in place for their own protection and so as not to spread the virus to other people. The Mayors of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have both given orders forbidding nonessential movements. This will be somewhat perplexing for the parent that has to drive miles to a library, Jacks, or McDonalds to access the WIFI for the child to fulfill their public school assignments.

We don’t know yet whether grades and advancing to the next grade or not will be dependent on how a child performs in the remaining eight weeks of distance learning.

COVED-19 has already killed 1,300 Americans, including at least one Alabamian, as of press time and over 84,000 Americans have been confirmed with the disease. Many more are infected and are showing only mild symptoms. Others are waiting on labs to process their test results. A shortage of test kits has also delayed getting many people tested.

 

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