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Alabama’s State Public Health lab ready to test for coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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It was unclear for a time Thursday whether Alabama’s public health lab in Montgomery could test for coronavirus or not. 

Conflicting statements Thursday from an Alabama Department of Public Health physician and a tweet an hour later from the department’s official Twitter account made it uncertain whether the state’s lab can or cannot test for the infectious disease that’s killed at least 12 Americans and thousands outside the U.S. 

But in a call from the ADPH physician to a reporter at APR later on Thursday, she said the lab had just moments earlier gotten a green light from the ADPH director to test for coronavirus.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map updated Thursday morning, which uses data from the Association of Public Health Laboratories, Alabama is joined by Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming as being “in progress” for having labs that can test for coronavirus. 

Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health told APR by phone at 1:30 p.m. Thursday that the agency’s Bureau of Clinical Laboratories in Montgomery wasn’t yet able to test for coronavirus, but was working to do so. 

But at 2:25 p.m. on Thursday, less than an hour after Landers spoke to APR, someone using the official Alabama Department of Public Health tweeted As of March 5, our state lab is approved to perform testing in-house. Hopefully, the map on the CDC website will be updated soon.” 

APR asked for clarification from the ADPH’s twitter account and received a message that reads “This is a rapidly evolving situation. There were meetings today to discuss our testing abilities. If you were speaking to Dr. Landers this morning and are quoting her in your article, I’d recommend you follow up with her. We will release more information as it becomes available — hopefully, tomorrow.” 

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APR asked for someone to call a reporter back Thursday evening, since they’d already tweeted about the matter, and a reporter received a call from Landers at 7:09 p.m. Thursday who said “We have now developed the capability to test. And again until we have that capability we cannot report that we have that capability.” 

Landers told APR earlier on Thursday that less than 10 tests from Alabama had been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta, and the results all came back negative for coronavirus. 

Landers said earlier Thursday that the agency “continues to engage in its quality assurance process and its verification process, so that testing for COVID-19, once this is started in our Bureau of Clinical laboratories, will be accurate.” 

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Asked why Alabama was one of the last six states with a public health lab able to test for coronavirus, Landers said that every state has been working on this all week. 

“It’s not a process that Alabama has not been engaging in, but again, anytime one is doing laboratory testing you have to complete your process,” Landers said earlier on Thursday. “In some situations that process might be shorter than others, but again, for Alabama, of course, we want to follow our process and we want to ensure the accuracy of our testing.” 

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases at 2:05 p.m. on Thursday tweeted out the CDC’s map which shows Alabama among the states not yet able to test. 

Dr. Marrazzo tagged the Alabama Department of Health in the tweet and wrote @ALPublicHealth⁩ ⁦@jcdhtweets⁩ ⁦@uabmedicine⁩ we really need to “get on the map” for #COVID19 #diagnosis this is from ⁦@CDCgov⁩ website today”

ADPH responded to Dr. Marrazzo in the tweet wiring “As of March 5, our state lab is approved to perform testing in-house. Hopefully, the map on the CDC website will be updated soon.”

Landers said later on  Thursday that “we’re very pleased,” that the process “was not rushed” and “quality assurance and verification. It’s what we do.”

Asked how many people the lab has a capacity to test, Landers said, “We have not published our capacity yet, because we’ve just now gone live, so we’re going to see what comes available to us.”

The World Health Organization on Thursday said there were more than 95,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide. There have been more than 3,281 deaths from the virus, which has spread across 78 countries. 

At least 12 people have died in the U.S. from the COVID-19 disease, and there are 149 confirmed and presumptive positive cases in the U.S., according to the CDC’s update Thursday.

Georgia has two confirmed cases of coronavirus, a 56-year-old man who recently traveled to Italy and his son, and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on Thursday announced the state’s first confirmed case, a 44-year-old man living just south of Nashville who had recently traveled out of state. 

A fourth coronavirus case in Florida was announced Thursday. A man in his 70s living in Santa Rosa County who had traveled internationally tested positive, Gov. Ron DeSantis said. 

The University of Alabama on Wednesday announced the school was canceling all university-sponsored international travel, according to The Crimson White

John Matson, director of communications for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told APR by phone Thursday that state nursing homes are preparing for whatever may come.

“Thankfully, no one has reported that a nursing home resident or employee has been diagnosed with coronavirus,” Matson said. “Of course, we’re not taking that as a sign that we’re in the clear. We’re maintaining our vigilance.” 

“We realize we care for a vulnerable population, so this is something we take very seriously,” Matson said. “What we’re doing right now is making sure our members are updated on the latest information we’ve received from public health and the CDC about how to best prevent, and then if you do suspect someone may have coronavirus, how to best isolate and treat them.” 

A nursing home in Washington state is the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak there, with nine of the 10 infected people there linked to the facility. Of those who tested positive and who were connected to the nursing home, six have since died. 

There are isolation procedures in place for residents who may be infected, Matson said, and if it’s determined by local health officials and the CDC that the person needs more acute care, they’ll be taken to a hospital. 

Many of the same things nursing homes already do to prevent the spread of the flu are the same procedures that can limit the spread of the coronavirus, Matson explained, such as staff and visitors thoroughly washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, covering their coughs and staying home if sick. 

“The keyword here is prevention. Do everything you can to prevent yourself from becoming infected, and if you think you may be infected do everything you can to limit your exposure to other people,” Matson said. 

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on Thursday ordered health inspectors to focus on infection-control at nursing homes.  

“Today’s actions, taken together, represent a call to action across the health care system,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement. “All health care providers must immediately review their procedures to ensure compliance with CMS’ infection control requirements, as well as the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We sincerely appreciate the proactive efforts of the nursing home and hospital associations that have already galvanized to provide up-to-the-minute information to their members. We must continue working together to keep American patients and residents safe and healthy and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Symptoms of coronavirus include a fever, runny nose, cough and shortness of breath, according to the University of Alabama at Birmingham

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that while there is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus, the best way to prevent its spread is to avoid being exposed. The CDC recommends: Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.
    • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
    • Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
    • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Alabama unemployment rate drops more than 2 points to 5.6 percent

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 5.6 percent in August, down from 7.9 percent in July, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

The figure represents 127,186 unemployed people, compared to 176,556 in July. It compares to an August 2019 rate of 2.8 percent, or 62,149 unemployed people.

“August showed a larger drop in the unemployment rate than we’ve seen for a few months,” said Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington. “We are continuing to see our initial claims drop, staying under 10,000 for the past several weeks. We regained another 22,200 jobs this month but are still down more than 86,000 from this time last year.”

Washington said that the number of people who are working or actively looking for work is at its highest level ever, which he described as a sign that people are confident that there are jobs to be found. 

Gov. Kay Ivey said the numbers are good news for Alabama. 

“We have worked extremely hard to open Alabama’s businesses safely, and to put our hard-working families back to work,” Ivey said in a statement. “We know that challenges remain, and we will endeavor to meet them so that we can get back to our previous, pre-pandemic record-setting employment numbers.”

All the state’s counties and metro areas experienced a decrease in unemployment rates from July to August. The most gains were seen in the government sector, the professional and business services sector and the trade, transportation and utilities sector.

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Counties with the lowest unemployment rates were:

  • Clay County – 3.4 percent
  • Randolph, Franklin, Marshall, Cullman, Cleburne and Cherokee Counties – 3.6 percent
  • Blount County – 3.7 percent

Counties with the highest unemployment rates were:

  • Wilcox County – 14.8 percent
  • Lowndes County – 13.8 percent
  • Greene County – 10.9 percent

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are:

  • Vestavia Hills – 3 percent
  • Homewood  – 3.2 percent
  • Madison – 3.3 percent

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are:

  • Prichard – 15.4 percent
  • Selma – 12.9 percent
  • Bessemer – 10.7 percent

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Economy

New unemployment claims drop slightly

Micah Danney

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There were 8,848 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, slightly fewer than the 8,902 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

Of the claims filed between Sept. 6 and Sept. 12, 4,485, or 51 percent, were related to COVID-19. That’s the same percentage as the previous week.

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Economy

Inaugural Alabama Works innovator awards presented

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(VIA ALABAMA WORKS)

The inaugural AlabamaWorks! Innovator Awards were presented by Gov. Kay Ivey and Deputy Director of Commerce and AIDT Director Ed Castile Thursday during the AlabamaWorks! Virtual Conference.

The awards were developed to highlight people and programs across the state that take an innovative approach to solving workforce challenges and help advance Ivey’s Success Plus attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers by 2025.

At the time of the inception of the awards, Alabama was unaware of the impact COVID-19 would have on the workforce and although the attainment goal has not changed, our economic and workforce recovery post-COVID-19 will hinge on innovators like those recognized.

“The workforce challenges that we face today are not the same ones that we faced six months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has completely reshaped the workforce landscape,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “The State of Alabama is relying on those who are leading the charge by implementing innovative solutions in their cities, counties and regions to further economic and workforce development.”

The recipients are visionaries, outside-of-the-box thinkers and problem solvers. The programs test boundaries, explore new opportunities and reach deeper to bring about change. “It is important to recognize these leaders of innovation and to thank them for their hard work and dedication to the citizens, communities and industries of Alabama,” said Ed Castile, deputy director of commerce and AIDT director. “Their innovative approach to workforce development will be key to opening doors, breaking barriers and propelling Alabamians forward.”

The recipients of the first-ever AlabamaWorks Innovator Awards are as follows:

Region 1 – North AlabamaWorks – Beth Brumley, Colbert County Schools

Beth Brumley built the Health Science Program for Colbert County Schools from the ground up by using her experience in the healthcare field to provide critical, real-world skills to her students. She developed key relationships within the healthcare community to provide her students enhanced learning opportunities and exposure, which resulted in increased demand for program graduates. Beth was also named the 2020 National New Teacher of the Year through the Association for Career and Technical Education. By bridging the gap between education and employer, Beth has created a formula for success that positively impacts the workforce.

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Region 2 – East AlabamaWorks – The Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement (SAFE)

SAFE has been a model for supportive services to empower individuals and families while fostering positive and healthy development of the community for nearly 25 years. In their program, SAFE combines occupational and employability skills to help job seekers be ready to enter the workforce regardless of barriers they may have faced in the past. Their dedication to providing practical solutions to modern problems is a testament to their heart for service and passion for helping their community and region.

Region 3 – West AlabamaWorks – Dr. Mike Daria, Superintendent Tuscaloosa City Schools

Dr. Daria has played a crucial role in the success of West Alabama’s workforce development by fostering important relationships between industry and education. His leadership has focused on increased Career Technical Education (CTE) enrollment, supporting local Worlds of Work events and the Educator Workforce Academy. Dr. Daria’s emphasis on the importance of identifying career pathways for the students in his district and then providing viable opportunities for students to take those paths, make him invaluable to West Alabama.

Region 4 – Central Six AlabamaWorks – Ed Farm

Ed Farm is the signature program of TechAlabama that focuses on encouraging children and adults to discover and pursue STEM careers. Ed Farm has a vision for a world full of invention, led by citizens who have been equipped with the necessary tools to fill or create the careers of the future. Through equipping educators and communities with innovative tools, strategies and programs they are able to support active learning for all students. With three signature tracks, Ed Farm is poised to help increase educational equity and improve learning outcomes through technology all while preparing the future tech workforce.

Region 5 – Central AlabamaWorks – Tiger Mochas, Auburn City Schools

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Tiger Mochas is a collaborative effort between special education students, FCCLA (Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America) members and peer volunteers at Auburn High School. This student-led organization is serving up a lot more than hot cups of coffee to their peers because through their work, students are provided meaningful, hands-on work experience that teaches important functional, social and daily living skills. Graduates of the program leave with not only work and employability skills, but in-demand soft skills that will help them succeed in life and work.

Region 6 – Southeast AlabamaWorks – WeeCat Industries

WeeCat Industries uses a simulated workplace model to meet the growing demand for a skilled workforce. WeeCat saw an opportunity to begin teaching work ethics and employability skills as early as preschool, and rose to the challenge. Their students clock into work, run an assembly line, fill orders, check invoices, meet production quota, interview for new positions and implement quality control all while earning a “paycheck” to be spent at the WeeCat Store before they can even spell the word “school”. WeeCat Industries places invaluable skills at a crucial age in development which will shape the future of the workforce.

Region 7 – SAWDC AlabamaWorks – Ed Bushaw

Ed Bushaw with the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce researched and developed initiatives to address the region’s workforce supply to meet the needs of the growing hospitality and tourism industry in his region. His collaborative efforts with business and industry officials resulted in the development of the first Hospitality and Tourism registered apprenticeship program in Alabama. Apprentices receive classroom instruction as well as valuable real-world experience within the hospitality and tourism industry and finish the program with a credential that can be used to advance their career. Ed’s ability to adapt to the needs of industry and implement programs that address those needs are vital to the continued success of southwest Alabama.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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