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NASA deals with the coronavirus

Brandon Moseley

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Monday that a NASA employee in California has tested positive for the coronavirus. Bridenstine also announced plans to use telework to limit exposure if the virus becomes more of a threat.

“On Sunday, March 8, we received confirmation an employee at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19),” Bridenstine said in a statement. “We believe the exposure at the center has been limited, but — out of an abundance of caution, and in consultation with Ames’ Center Director Eugene Tu, NASA Chief Heath and Medical Officer Dr. J.D. Polk, and in accordance to agency response plans — Ames Research Center is temporarily on mandatory telework status with restricted access to the center until further notice.”

“Limiting personnel at the center will allow Ames medical personnel and public health officials to determine potential contacts and assess areas that may require additional cleaning and mitigate potential exposure to center personnel,” Bridenstine continued. “Working with county officials, Ames leadership and medical personnel are working to trace the contacts of the employee and notifying individuals who may have had significant contact with that person.”

“Access to Ames is restricted to essential personnel only as required to safeguard life, property, and critical mission functions approved at the level of the associate center director,” Bridenstine continued.
“More guidance will follow for those who do not have equipment to work from home or who work in labs or other facilities requiring similar technical equipment that are fixed assets. In addition, due to the current uncertainty about the coronavirus situation in the United States and its potential impact on travel during the next few weeks, three NASA Earth Science airborne science campaigns slated to deploy across the country this spring have rescheduled their field activity until later in the year. The campaigns are DeltaX, Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTTS), and Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE), which would include flights from Ames. The scientific returns of these projects are not expected to be impacted by this change of plans.”

“Last Friday’s agencywide voluntary telework exercise was a good test of NASA’s large-scale preparedness with no reported issues to the overall IT system,” Bridenstine said. “I’ve asked all NASA employees to continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s Chief Health and Medical Officer, and if they have questions, don’t hesitate to talk with their supervisor.”

“You’ve heard the agency’s leadership say the protection and care of our NASA team is the top priority and critical to the success of the agency’s mission, and it’s true,” Bridenstine concluded.
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation evolves, we’ll continue to closely monitor and coordinate with federal, state, and community officials to take any further appropriate steps to help safeguard the NASA family.”

NASA is a large employer in Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center. 729 people in 36 states have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus. Alabama and Mississippi are still coronavirus free; but it seems inevitable that the disease will eventually be found here. There are four cases in Tennessee, sixteen in Georgia, and fifteen in Florida, including one in Pensacola. 22 Americans have died in Washington, two in California, and two in Florida.

Worldwide there have been 114,629 cases since December and 4,030 deaths. The countries hardest his are: China with 3,136 deaths, 463 in Italy, 237 in Italy, 54 in South Korea, 31 in Spain, 30 in France, and 27 in the U.S.

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Crime

Three more prison workers test positive for COVID-19, testing of inmates remains low

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two workers at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one employee at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday evening.

The latest confirmed cases among staff bring the total of COVID-19 cases among prison workers to 58. Twelve of those workers have since recovered, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release Thursday. 

ADOC is investigating to determine whether inmates or staff had “direct, prolonged exposure to these staff members,” according to the release. Anyone exposed to the infected staff members will be advised to contact their health care providers and self-quarantine for two weeks, according to the release. 

The latest case at Bullock prison makes 5 workers there who’ve tested positive for coronavirus, and the worker at Kilby prison also became the fifth employee at that facility with a confirmed case of the virus.

There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases in 18 of the state’s 27 facilities, with the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County with the most infected workers, with 12 confirmed cases among staff.

As of noon Thursday, there were no additional confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, according to ADOC. Of the 11 confirmed cases among inmates, two remain active, according to the department. 

The extent of the spread of the virus among inmates is less clear, however, due to a lack of testing. Just 155 inmates of approximately 22,000 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to the department. Test results for six inmates were still pending. 

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An ADOC spokeswoman was working to respond to APR’s questions sent Wednesday asking whether the department had plans to broaden testing among inmates to include asymptomatic people, but APR had not received responses as of Thursday evening. 

ADOC this week completed installation of infrared camera systems at major facilities that can detect if a person attempting to enter or exit the facility is running a temperature greater than 100 degrees, according to the release Thursday. 

“This added layer of screening increases accuracy of readings while reducing the frequency with which individuals must be in close proximity at points of entry/exit,” the release states.

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Elections

League of Women Voters of Alabama sue over voting amid COVID-19 pandemic

Eddie Burkhalter

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The League of Women Voters of Alabama on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill and several Montgomery County election officials asking the court to expand Alabama’s absentee voting and relax other voting measures amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The nonprofit is joined in the suit by 10 plaintiffs who range in age from 60 to 75, many of whom have medical conditions that put them at greater risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19. 

“Voting is a right, not a privilege, and elections must be safe, accessible, and fairly administered,” the League of Women Voters of Alabama said in a press release Thursday. “Alabama’s Constitution specifically requires that the right to vote be protected in times of ‘tumult,’ clearly including the current pandemic.” 

Currently, to vote absentee in Alabama, a person must send a copy of their photo ID and have their ballot signed by a notary or two adults. The lawsuit asks the court to require state officials to use emergency powers to waive the notary or witness requirement, the requirement to supply a copy of a photo ID and to extend no-excuse absentee voting into the fall. 

Among the plaintiffs is Ardis Albany, 73, of Jefferson County who has an artificial aortic valve, according to the lawsuit. 

“Because she fears exposing herself to COVID-19 infection, Ms. Albany has already applied for an absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020, general election,” the complaint states. “Her application checked the box for being out of county on election day, and she is prepared to leave Jefferson County on election day if necessary to vote an absentee ballot.” 

Another plaintiff, 63-year-old Lucinda Livingston of Montgomery County suffers from heart and lung problems and has been sequestered at home since March 17, where she lives with her grandson, who’s under the age of five, according to the complaint. 

“She fears acquiring COVID-19, given her physiological pre-morbidity, and she fears spreading the virus to her grandson at home,” the complaint states. “She has never voted an absentee ballot, but she wishes to do so in the elections held in 2020. She does not have a scanner in her home, cannot make a copy of her photo ID, and has no way safely to get her absentee ballot notarized or signed by two witnesses.” 

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In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Ivey pushed the Republican runoff election back until July 14. Although Merrill has allowed those who may be concerned about voting in person in the runoff to vote absentee by checking a box on the ballot that reads “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls.”

Merril has not extended that offer for voters in the municipal and presidential elections in November, however. 

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama continue to rise, while testing for the virus has remained relatively flat in recent weeks. 

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking during a press briefing Thursday. 

Harris said the department continues to see community spread of the virus and have identified several hotspots. He’s concerned that the public isn’t taking the virus seriously or following recommendations to wear masks in public and maintain social distancing, he said Thursday. 

“One hundred years ago the nonpartisan League of Women Voters was founded to protect and preserve the right to vote and the integrity of the electoral process,” said Barbara Caddell, President of the League of Women Voters of Alabama, in a statement. “The unexpected risks posed by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID19) challenge our election system to the utmost.  Today, we ask that Alabama’s courts use Alabama’s laws to make it safe and possible for all citizens to vote.”

The League of Woman Voters of Alabama’s lawsuit is similar to a suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program which asks the court to require state officials to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the coronavirus pandemic and to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and witnesses requirements.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a brief in that suit that states the department doesn’t believe Alabama’s law that requires witnesses for absentee ballots violates the Voting Rights Act.

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Health

Two patients at Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatric Center die from COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two patients at the state’s Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatric Center have died from COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Mental Health confirmed to APR on Thursday. 

There remained 17 active coronavirus cases among patients at the state-run facility, said ADMH spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert in a message Thursday. 

One patient at the facility has recovered from the virus, Valdes-Hubert said. Two nurses at the facility have also tested positive for the virus, Valdes-Hubert said on May 15. 

There were no confirmed cases at ADMH’s two other facilities in Tuscaloosa, Bryce Hospital and the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility as of Thursday, Valdes-Hubert said.

Among the preventative measures being taken at the Mary Starke Harper facility are staff temperature checks and screening for other symptoms, and workers are required to wear FDA approved masks, Valdes-Hubert previously said.

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Health

Alabama health officer: More testing doesn’t account for spike in cases

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks is not totally attributable to increased testing and that the Alabama Department of Public Health believes there is ongoing, widespread community transmission of the virus.

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” Harris said. “We know that ADPH and partners we work with have managed to increase the number of tests we’re doing throughout the state, but that doesn’t account for the case numbers that we’re seeing, or certainly doesn’t completely account for it.”

Harris said the state has identified a number of growing hotspots, including in Montgomery County, Tuscaloosa County and Walker County, where spikes in cases are not attributable to increased testing but rather outbreaks connected to businesses, nursing homes and widespread community transmission.

“We know that we continue to have community transmission going on in many parts of the state,” Harris said on a Facebook town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. “We certainly identified many hotspots. …Sometimes we understand the reasons. Sometimes we do not. But clearly there’s a lot of disease transmission still going on.”

Harris said the increased daily case counts — which are increasing faster than 46 other states — should serve as a reminder that social-distancing recommendations must be followed, people must wear masks when out in public and people should avoid large crowds, even if those actions are not mandated by the government.

“Now more than ever, now that people are out in public, this is the time when they really need to follow those rules, those guidelines,” Harris said. “We need people to stay six feet apart, or more, from folks who aren’t in their own household. When people are going out into public, and particularly in indoors, perhaps into businesses or in other places, where they’re mixing with other people, face coverings, mask of some kind, are imperative and absolutely everyone needs to do that.”

The state health officer, who leads Alabama’s Department of Public Health, said the state was very concerned by photos and videos of massive crowds not wearing masks on Alabama’s beaches and Gulf restaurants over Memorial Day weekend.

“We did not like that at all,” Harris said. “I had conversations with local officials there about them and they certainly recognize and understand the dangers of that as well. They have done their best to use law enforcement to try to enforce that to the extent they can. But ultimately, we need the public to accept this. And to do this, we need the public to buy in and understand.”

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Over the past two weeks, Alabama has confirmed an additional 5,080 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 16,181. About a third of the state’s cases have been confirmed in the two weeks since the state relaxed restrictions on bars and restaurants on May 11.

Seven- and 14-day rolling averages, used to smooth out daily variability in reporting, are higher than during any point in the outbreak, meaning more new cases per day are being confirmed than ever before.

There has been no comparable increase in testing. Alabama broke 200,000 total tests performed on Thursday. But over the past 14 days, about 4,004 tests per day have been performed, on average. Over the previous 14-day period, ending May 14, the average number of tests per day was roughly the same at 4,032.

Meanwhile, the percent of tests that are positive has been rising after dropping to as low as 3 percent on May 1, based on 7-day averages of increases in tests and cases. The same metric rose to 10 percent by Wednesday.

Over the last 14 days, at least 117 people have died from COVID-19. On Thursday, the number of deaths attributable to the virus rose to 590.

“Those numbers do sound like numbers, they’re statistics,” Harris said on another Facebook town hall with Sen. Doug Jones. “But it’s really important to remember that every one of those numbers is a person. They’re someone’s parent or child or brother or sister. And so we never want to lose sight of the fact that we are having Alabamians who are dying from COVID-19 disease.”

Harris said the rise in cases is worrisome, and the state expected some rise after lifting the state’s stay-at-home order and loosening restrictions on businesses and gatherings.

“We’re going to need people to be more careful than ever,” Harris said.

Harris repeatedly emphasized the importance of wearing masks when out in public and said maybe public health officials need to do more to emphasize the importance of masks.

“People feel like a mask just protects me, and if I’m not worried about getting sick, then why should I wear a mask?” Harris said. “But a mask is how you protect other people.”

A mask controls your own coughing or sneezing or other symptoms — or just transmitting it because you’re talking or yelling or spitting. Such precautions are important because at least a quarter of people and maybe as many as a third of people who are infected and can infect others won’t have any symptoms at all.

“So, it’s certainly possible that you can be infectious to other people and not even know it,” Harris said. “So that’s what a mask is for. A mask, in my mind, is good manners. A mask is how you show that you care about people in your family or in your community, particularly those people who are very vulnerable, or seniors or people with chronic health problems.”

Masks are also important even when not around vulnerable people because you could spread the virus to someone else, who then unwittingly could spread it to a nursing home or extended care facility.

In Tuscaloosa County, DCH Health System has seen the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 more than double over the course of a week, in part because of an outbreak at a long-term care facility in the county and in part because of community spread, Harris said.

Similar outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Elmore County, Butler County and a workplace in Walker County and Franklin County have contributed to rising numbers, Harris said.

“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said, “and yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out into the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them. There has to be transmission going on in the community for that to happen. We need to find a way to get people to take this seriously.”

Harris said the Department of Public Health is not aware of any particular origin for the rising cases in Montgomery County, however, and that officials believe the rise is largely due to widespread community transmission and in part due to increased testing.

But the increase in cases also accompanies a rise in the percent of tests that are positive in Montgomery County, despite increased testing there. There has been some controversy about Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed saying no ICU beds were available in the city, but Harris said he was “absolutely correct.”

“There were no ICU beds available,” Harris said. “We talked to the hospitals immediately upon learning about that. I think their response was that that’s correct. However, they do have some internal capacity, when they need to do it, to expand the space that they have available and take care of critically ill patients.”

In Montgomery, that has involved treating critically ill patients in emergency rooms and retrofitted ICU units, a Montgomery area doctor told APR earlier this week. But there remains a shortage of ICU beds.

“I think that the message that we want to be careful about putting out there is: clearly those hospitals have higher numbers, they have you know their normal beds filled, and yet the public sometimes hears that and thinks well if I have a heart attack, I don’t have a place to go or they’re going to turn me away if I show up because the hospital’s full, and that’s not the case,” Harris said. “And so we want people to understand they certainly still can continue to seek care, just as they always would for any kind of a problem. They should do that. They certainly shouldn’t try to sit at home if they’re concerned about a certain thing.”

But if numbers continue to rise, the situation could become a dire problem.

“If numbers go up, they can’t do that forever, and then we’ll have to have to make other arrangements,” Harris said.

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