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Byrne defends Trump decision to fire Vindman, Sondland

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, President Donald J. Trump (R) dealt with two key witnesses who testified in the House Democrats’ impeachment hearings. Trump fired Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and removed Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman from his White House job with the National Security Council. Senate candidate Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Montrose) defended the decision.

“President Trump deserves to have people working for him who are loyal and working to advance his agenda,” Byrne said in a statement.

The move was criticized as “payback” by many in the media.

“The liberal media just continues to act as the mouthpiece of the DNC!,” Byrne said.

The two officials provided critical testimony during the House inquiry into the president’s conduct with Ukraine. Trump had ordered members of the administration not to testify before the inquiries by the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees. Sondland and Vindman both defied those orders.

Both officials provided critical information about Trump during public hearings. Ambassador Sondland claimed that the president sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Lt. Col. Vindman was openly critical of President Trump’s conduct during a July 25 phone call with Pres. Zelenskiy.

Former Ambassador Sondland said in a statement Friday night, “I was advised today that the President intends to recall me effective immediately as United States Ambassador to the European Union.”

The Alabama Political Reporter asked Trump Victory Committee member former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. to comment on President Trump’s dismissal of Ambassador Sondland and National Security Aide Vindman and his brother.

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“I applaud President Trump taking action and dismissing Sondland and the Vindman brothers. Every president has the right to have Foreign Policy Advisors and Ambassadors who share his policy values and priorities in this case America first in foreign policy and the “Peace Through Strength” doctrine. These three officials obviously did not share Presidents priorities. The President has nominated Federal Judges who are strict conservative constitutionalists. The Senate has confirmed these nominations. The President must have the same latitude to nominate and have confirmed Ambassadors who share his America first policies.”

Congressman Byrne represents Alabama’s First Congressional District. He is running for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Doug Jones (D). Sen. Jones voted for Trump’s conviction and removal on Wednesday. Rep. Byrne was vocally critical of Trump’s impeachment and was thanked Thursday by the President.

Byrne is in a crowded Republican Primary field that includes: former Chief Justice Roy Moore, State Representative Arnold Mooney, former Auburn head football Coach Tommy Tuberville, Ruth Page Nelson, businessman Stanley Adair, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Republican primary is on March 3.

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Health

Feds seizing needed supplies slowed state’s COVID-19 testing efforts

Chip Brownlee

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Add Alabama to the list of states that have had trouble acquiring needed medical supplies from commercial vendors because the federal government intervened and took the supplies.

The federal government has been quietly seizing orders of medical supplies, protective gear and testing materials across the country, and Alabama has not been immune.

The federal government’s actions, blocking the shipment of those supplies, impeded the state’s ability to roll out widespread testing and added to supply shortages in the state, officials say.

The Alabama Department of Public Health told APR Thursday that several shipments of supplies from commercial vendors have been superseded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in the state.

“It’s been happening all along,” said State Health Officer Scott Harris. “We had orders through about three different vendors, national vendors that we would normally use for medical supplies. They had accepted the orders and given us a ship date.”

But then the vendors called and canceled the orders.

“They say, you know, the inventory was acquired by HHS,” Harris said, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have not publicly reported these acquisitions, according to the Los Angeles Times, nor has the administration detailed how these supplies are being used, when they decide to seize them and where the supplies are being rerouted to.

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The first time was three weeks ago. The state placed an order for about four thousand nasopharyngeal swabs, the long Q-tip like swabs used to perform COVID-19 tests. The order was accepted, but before it could be shipped, HHS seized the supplies.

“That was one of the things that slowed our rollout of testing around the state because there were no supplies to be had,” Harris said.

Since then, the state and hospitals have been able to acquire supplies from other vendors, but the delays have hampered testing, putting Alabama behind other states like Louisiana. As of Thursday, Louisiana had tested nearly 90,000 people for the virus. The number includes most commercial tests.

The main issue facing the state has not been the so-called “test kits” or even the state lab’s capacity to run tests.

“We’ve had days where we thought we were going to be out of reagent, and we’ve wondered if we were going to have to hold off testing, but we haven’t had to stop,” Harris said. “We’ve had some just-in-time deliveries that we weren’t sure were coming.”

The real issue has been the swabs needed to collect samples. Hospitals and health officials across the state, from Huntsville to Mobile, have at one point or another reported severe shortages of nasopharyngeal swabs.

“We’re bidding against every other state in the country, and in some cases, we’re bidding against health care facilities here in our own state who are doing their own testing,” Harris said of the process of acquiring swabs and other supplies.

ADPH and hospitals have been able to get more of those supplies, and Alabama has slowly ramped up testing as a result. But it has not been easy. “Getting those swabs and viral transport media has really been the rate-limiting step for most of our testing clinics,” Harris said.

As of Thursday, the state has tested about 20,000 people, nearly twice the number reported five days ago on April 4. Testing has been increasing over the past week and a half, Harris said.

More have been tested, but it’s hard to know exactly how many because not all commercial labs are reporting the number of negative tests they conduct. Harris said the state has asked the commercial labs to report those numbers, but some have been slow to do so.

Alabama has also had trouble receiving other types of needed medical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment. Some of the shipments seized by the federal government have been personal protective equipment intended to refill dwindling supplies at some of the state’s harder hit hospitals, nursing homes and other providers, according to Dr. Donald Williamson, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Though no hospital has run out of PPE, some have been running low, Williamson said. But hospitals have been forced to take unusual measures to conserve supplies, particularly the N95 masks that offer the most protection to health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

The city of Montgomery in late March received 28 cases of protective masks from the strategic national stockpile, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. When the city opened the shipment, about 5,800 of the masks had dry rot and an expiration date of 2010.

The difficulties in the supply chain have also affected the state’s ability to acquire new ventilators. Harris told APR on Friday that the state asked the federal government for 500 ventilators, and for 200 of them to be delivered urgently. HHS indicated that it would not fulfill the request anytime soon, and that the state could expect additional ventilators only if a dire need was expected within 72 hours.

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

Alabama has placed an order for 250 more ventilators, and that order has been accepted, but it has not shipped yet, Harris said.

“We’re just not sure when they’re going to get here,” Harris said. “But we will need them in the next 14 days.”

In the meantime, Alabama has shipped about a dozen out-of-date ventilators to California for refurbishment. About half of those have been returned and distributed to hospitals based on their need. The state has also added to its ventilator capacity by retrofitting anesthesia machines and veterinary ventilators for use on those infected with the virus. Even though the state has added about two hundred new ventilators into service, the usage rate of ventilators has remained about the same. As of April 8, at least 101 people have required mechanical ventilation in Alabama for COVID-19. The number is expected to rise in the next weeks.

In the meantime, the state has had trouble getting ventilators from private vendors because the components needed to produce them have been redirected by the federal government to Ford and GM, who have been ordered to manufacture ventilators in mass quantities.

“They have had first-choice at these parts,” Harris said. “So the people who normally make ventilators can’t get those parts, which slows down delivery for all of us who’ve gone through the normal channels to get them where we would normally get them.”

Williamson and Harris said the state and its hospitals, which are already facing a cash crunch, have been forced to pay inflated prices for needed supplies because demand is high and supply is short.

“Some of our folks are seeing prices substantially higher than they normally have for PPE, specifically N95 masks. Some of it is supply and demand, and some of it is people taking advantage of an unfortunate situation,” Williamson said.

The state has been able to identify supply to help support hospitals who are sourcing their own, too, but the costs are exorbitant and a majority of the “vendors” offering to supply the state with supplies are counterfeit.

“You know, you would normally pay 60 or 70 cents for a mask,” Harris said. “These offers are typically $5 or $6 per mask now. I’ve seen some are asking for $10 or whatever, which is truly outrageous.”

The governor’s office, the Department of Commerce and the attorney general’s office have been helping the Department of Public Health source needed supplies.

“We’re doing our best to source those any way we can,” Harris said.

Harris and Williamson both said PPE supply and ventilator capacity, at least right now, appear to be in decent shape.

“I’m feeling better about ventilators,” Williamson said. “But it would always be nice to have more. With the surge we’re expecting, we seem to be okay. We’ve only had a couple of instances where we’ve had to try to assist and help move ventilators from one hospital to another hospital, but we’ve been able to do that and no one has gone without a ventilator who needed one.”

But the Department of Public Health expects a rise in hospitalizations over the next two weeks that could add further strain the state’s health care system.

“Let’s see what happens over the next week, but for today, we are much better prepared than we would have been, frankly, a few months ago,” Williamson said.

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Governor Ivey launches new COVID-19 search engine tool

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Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday announced the launch of a COVID-19 search engine tool that enhances the state’s official resource site, altogetheralabama.org.

Through a public-private partnership between Yext and the state of Alabama, this innovative platform will provide real-time answers to questions about everything from the virus itself, through a symptom checker that was developed at UAB, to upcoming COVID-19 testing site locations. 

This service is free of charge and can be accessed either through altogetheralabama.org or directly at covid19.alabama.gov.

“My priority as governor is making sure every Alabamian has the most accurate, up-to-date information about COVID-19, so we can keep our families safe,” Governor Ivey said. “To help with this, we’ve partnered with our friends in the private sector, Yext, to build this search engine tool that works in conjunction with our official resource site Altogether Alabama.”

“We are indebted to Yext for generously offering its resources and innovative technology to support the crucial job of keeping our state informed during this pandemic. Simply put, current information can be lifesaving and this resource will prove invaluable to all who use it,” Ivey said.

Using this search engine, someone can type a question about COVID-19 and get instant results directing them to answers from our local, state and federal partners.

“During a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, accurate answers can be a matter of life and death,” said Howard Lerman, Founder and CEO of Yext. “With Yext Answers, we can help every government organization deliver that critical information and save as many lives as possible.”

The search engine provides factual information regarding this new virus and will provide additional information that complements the work of the Alabama Department of Health.

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State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said, “I want to express my gratitude to Yext for donating services and support for the covid19.alabama.gov information hub. This further enables the Alabama Department of Public Health and the state of Alabama to provide our residents with vital resources to health information during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General of Bayou La Batre, served as an expert health care consultant in the site development and provided valuable insight of information most needed by the public.

“The information hub covid19.alabama.gov puts real-time, up to date information at the general public’s fingertips, including the latest health stats, a UAB-symptom checker, and test site locations,” says Dr. Benjamin. “You can ask ‘Natural Language’ questions and be directed to answers from trusted sources such as the ADPH, CDC, and the Federation of American Scientists.”

 

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Congress

ADOL begins paying federal $600 stimulus benefit

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Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced today Alabama has begun paying the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit that was established with the passing of the federal CARES Act on March 27, 2020.

ADOL began paying the FPUC benefits on April 8, 2020.  Claimants whose claims have processed should expect to see the funds within 2-3 days, if not sooner.  ADOL paid $40,060,495 in FPUC benefits to 60,848 claimants yesterday.

Under the legislation, anyone receiving unemployment compensation benefits is eligible for the additional $600 a week stimulus payment. The payment is added to the recipient’s state weekly benefit amount (maximum of $275/week). The payments will be made for eligible weeks beginning on March 29, 2020 through July 25,2020. This does not refer to the date the original claim was filed, but to the weeks being claimed.  For example, if someone filed their initial claim on March 16, 2020, and remains out of work, they will not receive the additional $600 for the weeks beginning March 15 or March 22, but would receive it for the week beginning March 29, and all weeks going forward.

ADOL will make payments retroactively for weeks already claimed since March 29, 2020.

“We understand the frustration of many Alabamians who are out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we know that they need these benefits to stay afloat,” said Washington.  “We are working as hard as we can to make sure that everyone gets the benefits they need as quickly as they can.  We are one of the first states to begin distributing these funds. We continue to urge patience as the department works to implement this vital legislation.”

Programs included in the legislation:

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) – provides unemployment benefits to those not ordinarily eligible for them. This includes individuals who are self-employed or contract employees. This benefit is retroactive to January 27, 2020.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) – provides $600 per week to any individual eligible for any of the Unemployment Compensation programs. This benefit begins March 29, 2020. 

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Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) – allows for an additional 13 weeks of benefits added to the end of regular unemployment benefits. This means claimants may collect unemployment benefits for a longer period of time than under normal circumstances.

ADOL is encouraging anyone who believes they may be eligible for these programs to file a claim at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is strongly encouraged.

Those who already have an active claim, or who have already filed a claim, DO NOT NEED TO REFILE to be eligible for these benefits. ADOL will begin processing PUA and PEUC claims as soon as administratively possible.

Important note: None of the benefits described above, nor unemployment benefits of any kind, are available to employees who quit without good work-related cause, refuse to return to work, or refuse to receive full-time pay. Refusing to return to work could result in a disqualification for benefit eligibility. Attempts to collect unemployment benefits after quitting a job without good work-related cause is considered to be fraud.

The CARES Act specifically provides for serious consequences for fraudulent cases including fines, confinement, and an inability to receive future unemployment benefits until all fraudulent claims and fines have been repaid. Employers are encouraged to utilize the New Hire system to report those employees who fail to return to work.

 

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National

CDC provides guidance for cloth masks

Brandon Moseley

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that Americans wear masks when they go out to ward against the spread of the coronavirus. On Wednesday the CDC issued guidance for cloth masks, which many Americans are making themselves to protect against the virus.

The CDC said that a cloth mask should fit snugly, but comfortably against the side of the face. The mask should be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, allow for breathing without restriction, and be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

“CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the CDC wrote in a statement. “CDC also advises the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.”

The CDC cautioned that cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The CDC says that cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

Individuals should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash hands immediately after removing the mask the CDC warned.

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth (R) said on social media, “‪I’m wearing my mask today to make sure I’m doing my part to protect others. If you have to go out for essential work or supplies, make sure and wear a mask. Numbers are looking better in Alabama, everyone continue to do their part to flatten the curve. We can do this Alabama!!!‬”

Trump national finance committee member former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. (R-Montgomery) said that Congress should provide masks to all Americans as part of the next coronavirus relief bill.

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“Experts are now in agreement. Everyone wearing a mask in public can reduce the spread of this deadly disease,” Hooper told the Alabama Political Reporter. “We should make available for all Americans a sterile reusable mask. Funds should be made available at the state level so Governors and Mayors could decide how best to distribute these masks on the local level.”

The U.S. has 435,160 confirmed COVID-19 cases. 14,797 Americans have died in the global pandemic, including 67 Alabamians. 22,891 Americans have recovered from their illness.

Projections showing hundreds of thousands of Americans dying have been revised dramatically lower. Americans are urged to continue to practice social distancing.

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