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Jones introduces bill to curb maternal death rate

Eddie Burkhalter

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Women died during pregnancy or during childbirth in Alabama in 2017 at a rate higher than in all but one state, and black women were much likelier to die than white women. 

U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., last week introduced the Maternal Outcomes Matter (MOM) Act of 2019 that aims to save more of those lives by creating a grant program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to foster innovation in health care. 

“It is absolutely appalling that here in the United States we have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world,” Jones said in a press release. “We can and must do better, and this bill is an important first step in addressing the maternal mortality crisis and preventing future tragedies. All women in this country, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, deserve quality access to maternal care.”

The legislation would also use those grants to train health care providers to avoid discrimination when providing medical care to expetant women, and would require the Health and Human Services department to submit a report to Congress on outcomes and best practices.

As the rest of the world saw a steady decline in the number of deaths during childbirth over the last several decades, women in the U.S. continued to die in greater numbers, The Washington Post found in 2018. Maternal death rates in the U.S. mirrored those deaths in Afghanistan, Lesotho and Swaziland. 

In Alabama 41 women died in 2017 from pregnancy or delivery, which was the second worst maternal death rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The high rates of maternal deaths in the U.S. are the result of high poverty rates, untreated medical conditions and a lack of access to medical care, The Washington Post reported. 

According to a March 13, 2019, article in the Journal of the American Medical Association about 800 women die during childbirth in the U.S. each year, and 70 percent of those deaths are preventable and caused by hemorrhaging. 

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The estimated maternal mortality rate in the U.S. was 26.4 per 100, 000 live births in 2015, the article states, worse than all other developed countries. The maternal mortality rate in Sweden that year was 4.4 per 100,000 live births, 9.2 in the United Kingdom, and 7.3 in Canada.

 

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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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National

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

Chip Brownlee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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