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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.

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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.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Education

Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students

The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches. 

The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31. 

Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office. 

“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.

“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”  

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The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project. 

“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”

According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds. 

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“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus. 

Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama. 

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Education

Jones urges USDA to extend waiver program for school meals amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends a waiver program, set to expire at the start of school, thousands of Alabama’s schoolchildren without transportation to school and who are learning remotely could miss out on school meals.  

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and dozens of other senators on Wednesday urged the USDA to extend vouchers that provide critical meals to children during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools around the country to close their buildings and shift instruction to online and distance-learning models,” the senators wrote in a letter to USDA. “For many children, school breakfast and lunch may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive.”

The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of parents their jobs, the senators wrote, and millions more students will be dependent on school-provided meals. 

“School meal program directors must begin procuring food, equipment, and supplies and placing orders now in preparation for the upcoming school year,” the letter continues. 

The waivers have allowed students to receive free meals when learning remotely, and the meals could be delivered to areas when transportation wasn’t available for students. 

State Superintendent Eric Mackey during a press briefing hosted by Jones on July 24 said “we do not anticipate that waiver being extended by the United States Department of Agriculture.” 

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Mackey said those waivers allowed for the delivery of meals to students who couldn’t come to school to pick the food up, and it allowed for the serving of bulk items, such as milk by the gallon. That all goes away if the USDA does not extend the waivers, he said. 

“Essentially, they will have to come to school to get the meals,” Mackey said. 

Mackey said last week that about half of the state’s K-12 students will be learning remotely for a period of time once school begins.

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The senators are urging the USDA to extend those waivers to help ensure low-income students can get school-provided meals throughout the upcoming school year. The senators also called on the USDA to reimburse schools for the transportation costs for delivering meals to low-income students.  

“While many school meal programs are managing these costs for the time-being, they cannot continue absorbing them for the foreseeable future. We ask that the USDA make additional funds available to schools to assist with the cost of delivering meals to low-income students until regular school operations are restored,” the letter continues. 

Senators in the letter asked the USDA to extend the following waivers: 

  • Unexpected School Closures Waiver 
  • Afterschool Activity Waiver
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Parent Pick-Up Waiver
  • Waiver of Child Nutrition Monitoring
  • Waiver of Food Management Company Contract Duration Requirements
  • Waiver of Local School Wellness Assessments
  • Area Eligibility Waiver
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waivers

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Nearly 20 Alabamians per day died from COVID-19 in July

The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Friday that another 15 Alabamians had died by the last day of the month, raising the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state to 1,531. July was by far the worst month of the pandemic in Alabama — with 605 Alabamians dying from the virus.

The high death toll in July translates into a rate of 19.52 deaths per day over the course of the month. At least 299 of the 605 deaths in July occurred in the last two weeks of the month — a rate of 21.36 deaths per day.

The state of Alabama entered the month with 37,536 diagnosed cases of coronavirus combined for March through June. Many of those cases had long since recovered. A largely apathetic public ignored all the warnings and insisted on parties, barbecues and vacations, often without masks, radically worsening the conditions on the ground in Alabama.

Another 47,742 cases of the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, were confirmed by the state department of health in July alone — more than doubled the number of cases diagnosed in the month of June, when 19,584 coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Alabama.

Nearly 56 percent of Alabama’s known cases were diagnosed just in July. Hundreds of them have died. 35,501 Alabamians, mostly from the previous months, have recovered from their ordeal, but most of Alabama’s cases are still considered active infections.

As of Aug. 1, Alabama has the seventh-highest per capita infection rate in the country — with 1,822 cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times. When limited to cases in the last seven days, Alabama has the sixth-highest rate in the country — at 239 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days.

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The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.

The state also set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations on Thursday at 1,642. Intensive care beds continue to be in high demand as hundreds fill hospitals.

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While testing has increased, the percentage of tests that return positive rose dramatically through the month of July. On July 1, roughly 12.37 percent of tests were positive, based on 7-day averages of daily case and test increases. By July 31, that number rose to nearly 22 percent. Experts say that percentage — known as the positivity rate or percent positive — should be below 5 percent or many cases are going undetected and not enough tests are available.

On July 31, the Department of Public Health said “overwhelmed” labs and limited testing supplies are delaying testing results with most people taking at least a week to get their results back. Experts say test results that take that long are nearly worthless.

There are growing fears in business and government circles that the surging coronavirus cases could jeopardize what originally appeared to be an economic recovery. Already the Southeastern Conference, which includes the University of Alabama and Auburn University, has announced that it is moving the start of their college football season back three weeks from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26 to allow more time to assess the situation and plan for how they will play in the midst of the pandemic.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have extended the public health emergency to the end of August. The order to wear a mask or cloth face covering has similarly been extended to August 31.

Congress is debating passing another coronavirus relief package but Capitol Hill is bitterly divided on how large this latest package should be. Meanwhile, there were another 1.5 million new unemployment claims filed last week.

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Alabama’s testing labs “overwhelmed,” causing slow COVID-19 results

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Friday said that as Alabama continues to see an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, it’s taking commercial labs and ADPH’s lab an average of seven days to get results. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Labs in Alabama are facing a surge of COVID-19 tests that have “overwhelmed” the state’s ability to return timely test results, which public health experts say makes the results nearly worthless. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Friday said that as Alabama continues to see an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, it’s taking commercial labs and ADPH’s lab an average of seven days to get results. 

“The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) recognizes that this is too long and asks for consumers and physicians and other providers to help in making sure that those who are most vulnerable become the focus for testing: the elderly, those in congregate living settings, healthcare personnel, those with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and those with underlying medical conditions that place them most at risk,” ADPH said in a press release. 

ADPH in the release states that the lengthier turnaround time for test results is due to several factors, including supply chain problems with test reagents, more demand for coronavirus tests nationwide, “and in some cases, increased numbers of unnecessary tests.” 

Dr.  Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious disease at UAB, said during a press briefing Thursday that COVID-19 test results at UAB are coming back within 24 hours, but at other labs in the state, it’s taking much longer. 

“I think it’s important to emphasize that that is essentially a worthless result,” Marrazzo said. “At that point, all it tells you is that six days ago you were negative.” 

A negative test one took a week before doesn’t tell a person if they’re still negative for COVID-19, Marrazzo said. Public health experts also worry that if a person is positive, and it takes a week to get those results, unless a person self-quarantined for that week, they could infect many others before they learn they’re positive. 

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In addition to the lengthy turnaround time for tests, Alabama continues to see high numbers of new daily cases, record-setting hospitalizations and rising daily deaths. 

“Right now, all of our COVID care units at UAB are at full capacity,” Marrazzo said Thursday. 

UAB Hospital on Friday was caring for a record-high 120 coronavirus patients. Statewide, there were 1,596 coronavirus patients admitted to hospitals. On Wednesday there were a record-high 1,605 hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide. Alabama hasn’t had fewer than 1,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients since July 5, and daily hospitalizations statewide have nearly tripled since the start of June. 

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Marrazzo said Thursday that she’s also very concerned with how many tests are coming back positive, what’s known as the percent positivity or positivity rate. Anything higher than 5 percent, public health experts say, means there’s not enough testing and cases are going undetected. 

The seven-day average percent positivity in Alabama was 21.6 percent Friday, the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, taking into account incomplete testing data in April that skewed the numbers. The state’s 14-day average of percent positivity was 20.2 percent. 

“I will contrast that to states that have done a very good job. Rhode Island is actually at  1 percent or less,” Marrazzo said. 

Alabama added 1,783 new COVID-19 cases and 15 deaths on Friday. July has been the deadliest month during Alabama’s COVID-19 crisis, with 605 deaths being confirmed in July, almost as many deaths recorded in Alabama during May and June combined.

Marrazzo said the state is still seeing far too many new COVID-19 cases each day. 

“We are not yet, seeing a significant sustained decline in the rate of new case cases being reported which is very concerning, in terms of our capacity to manage the consequences of that number of infections,” Marrazzo said. “It means we’re going to be seeing more sick people and absolutely more people dying in the next couple of weeks.”

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