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Fairhope church members back in U.S. after testing negative for coronavirus.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Members of a Fairhope church who were quarantined in an Israeli hotel arrived back in the U.S. early Tuesday morning after testing negative for COVID-19, a church spokesman said Tuesday. 

The 13 church members from 3Circle Church have chosen to complete a “medically-supervised quarantine,” wrote church spokesman Zach Adamson in a statement Tuesday. 

“Our team is so grateful to be back in the United States, and wants to thank you for your concern and prayers. We also want to be intentional to communicate next steps,” Adamson said. “Continuing the precautionary measures begun in Palestine, Pastor Chris and team have chosen to complete a medically-supervised quarantine. None of the team will participate in any church activities this coming Sunday. They will be released from quarantine only under direct medical supervision.” 

Adamson said in the statement that all 13 tested negative for COVID-19, and the tests were certified by both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. 

“We uphold the highest concern, not just for ourselves, but for the health and morale of our communities. Thank you for your tremendous support during this time,” Adamson wrote. 

Members of the church had arrived at The Angel hotel in Bethlehem, Israel on March 3. The following day they learned that a previous visitor to the hotel had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

At least 58 people have tested positive for the virus in Israel as of Tuesday, according to The Jerusalem Post

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The World Health Organization on Monday put the known worldwide tally of COVID-19 infections at more than 100,000 and the death toll from the virus at 3,809.

There were at least 423 known COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Monday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which attributed 19 deaths to the virus.

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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Education

Schools won’t be required to report COVID-19 data for state’s K-12 dashboard

Information presented on the dashboard won’t be broken down by individual schools but will instead be displayed for whole systems. And districts won’t be required to report.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Some time later this month state officials hope to roll out a statewide COVID-19 dashboard for K-12 public schools, but some parents worry that because school districts won’t be required to submit positive test results, the dashboard might not be that useful.

The Alabama Department of Education is working with the Alabama Department of Public Health in a joint effort to build the dashboard.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on Tuesday told APR the state hoped to have the dashboard online this week but technical difficulties pushed the expected roll out to later this month.

Harris said the two departments agreed not to make the positive test results that will be shown on the dashboard confirmed or verified by ADPH because doing so would slow down the process of updating the dashboard and wouldn’t give parents a glimpse at what’s happening at their schools at that moment.

“There’s a certain amount of time it takes to investigate a case and confirm it before we get it to our own dashboard,” Harris said.

Harris said the information presented on the dashboard won’t be broken down by individual schools but will instead be displayed for whole school systems, and districts won’t be required to report.

“We’re going to ask schools to self-report it,” Harris said. “They can choose not to, but I think most of them will do that.”

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Jacob Kohute and his wife have two children in Decatur City Schools. Kohute told APR on Tuesday that they are both fortunate to work from home, and decided to keep their children home for virtual learning, as his wife has an underlying medical condition that could cause complications if she were to contract the coronavirus.

“So we’ve been lucky that we’re able to do that,” Kohute said.

School systems statewide have varied approaches to sharing information about COVID-19 among students and staff.

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The Decatur city school system has been sending parents a weekly report that shows the number of cases among students and faculty, and how many students are under quarantine, Kohute said.

“We’ve gone upwards of 300,” Kohute said of the number of quarantined students. “It’s been fluctuating a lot.”

Kohute said in the last update from the schools there were seven new cases among students and a few among staff, which resulted in about 150 people being quarantined, showing that it takes very few cases to have a big impact on those who have come in contact with the infected person.

While Decatur City Schools regularly reports data to parents, many districts statewide do not, and instead only report a confirmed case to parents of children deemed to have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Kohute expressed concern that districts won’t be required to report to the state’s dashboard.

“It’s almost useless then, depending upon the leanings of the administration,” Kohute said of the state’s K-12 dashboard.

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Health

Nursing Home Association announces plan for indoor visits

“It’s important for nursing home residents and their family members to be able to visit in person and this is another step toward returning life to normal in nursing homes,” said Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Nursing Home Association this week announced a plan to resume indoor visitation in nursing homes and continue outdoor visitation. The resumption of limited indoor visits is possible because of a change in guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and an amended state health order.

“It’s important for nursing home residents and their family members to be able to visit in person and this is another step toward returning life to normal in nursing homes,” said Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association. “We are pleased CMS is moving in this direction and thankful Governor Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris amended the state health order to accommodate this change. We are working closely with Governor Ivey’s administration and the Alabama Department of Public Health to help our members understand and implement these guidelines.”

According to the CMS guidance referenced in the amended state health order, visitors and nursing home staff must follow certain requirements for the limited indoor visits. The CMS guidance says, “we encourage facilities in medium and high-positivity counties to test visitors, if feasible. Facilities may also encourage visitors to be tested on their own prior to coming to the facility (e.g. within 2-3 days) with proof of negative test results and date of the test.”

Visitors must also adhere to CMS core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention and pass a health screening. The requirements are designed to protect the health of nursing home residents and staff members. Visitors who do not comply with the infection prevention requirements will not be allowed to visit. According to CMS, nursing homes located in a county with a positivity rate of greater than 10 percent will not be allowed to offer indoor visitation.

“Resident safety is our top priority as we expand visitation and the CMS guidelines will be closely followed. The public must continue to do its part to lower the spread of COVID-19. Decreasing community spread and consistent testing are key to our ability to offer indoor visits,” Farmer said.

For indoor visitation, CMS says nursing homes must have no new onset of COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days and not be currently conducting outbreak testing, limit the number of visitors per resident, limit the number of visitors in the building at one time and limit visitors’ movement inside the building.

Visitors must wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose and practice social distancing while visiting their loved one during their entire visit. Violation of these policies could result in denial of future indoor visits.

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CMS said outdoor visitation is still preferable to indoor visits, and outdoor visits should be held whenever practicable. All visitors of Alabama nursing homes will need to schedule an appointment to visit their loved one.

Below is a list of dos and don’ts for nursing home visitors.

Nursing Home Visitor Do’s and Don’ts

Do

  • Do schedule an appointment to visit with your loved one
  • Do use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before, during and after your visit 
  • Do wear a mask covering your mouth and nose during your entire visit in the facility
  • Do maintain social distance of at least six feet from staff and residents
  • Do keep out of areas that are not designated for visitation
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Don’t

  • Don’t remove your mask while in the facility
  • Don’t leave the designated visitation area
  • Don’t come to the facility without an appointment
  • Don’t come to the facility if you have any symptoms – coughing, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of sense of taste or smell – even if you attribute these symptoms to some other cause (allergies or cold).

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Health

Judge orders Alabama to change voter requirements over COVID-19 concerns

In his 197-page ruling, the judge wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified.”

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a case challenging aspects of Alabama’s voting requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Wednesday ruling orders the principal defendant in the lawsuit, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, to allow curbside voting, in the counties that choose to do so, but only for the Nov. 3 general election. The judge’s rulings pertain solely to the Nov. 3 election.

Kallon also ordered the state to do away with the requirement for voters to have two witnesses or a notary sign their absentee ballot, if the voter submits a statement that they have an underlying medical condition that puts them at a heightened risk from COVID-19 and thus, they cannot safely get those additional signatures.

In addition, Kallon ruled that voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition won’t need to submit a copy of a photo ID with their absentee ballot, so long as the voter provides other identifying information, such as their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number.

In his 197-page ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

“That is for three reasons,” the judge continued. “First, because the Challenged Provisions only marginally advance the State’s interests in maintaining them while significantly burdening the right to vote, all three provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments during the pandemic.”

“Second, because the photo ID requirement and the de facto curbside voting ban make voting inaccessible for voters with disabilities, both those provisions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act during the pandemic. Finally, because the witness requirement interacts with Alabama’s history of discriminating against Black citizens to deny Black voters’ their right to vote, that provision violates the Voting Rights Act during the pandemic.”

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The lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, was brought on behalf of several Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“This decision is a huge win for Alabama voters, especially voters of color and voters with disabilities,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel at LDF, in a statement. “Given COVID-19, Alabama’s draconian voting rules needlessly place the health and voting rights of Alabamians in danger. No one should be forced to risk their safety to exercise their constitutional right. State and local election officials have a responsibility to ensure that voting is easy and accessible for everyone in the pandemic.”

Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, applauded Wednesday’s decision.

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“Today’s decision provides  crucial relief in Alabama’s absentee voting process, allows for curbside voting in counties that wish to provide it, and ultimately will create a better public health situation in Alabama as it conducts an historic election,” Short said. “We’re deeply hopeful that the secretary of state and county election officials will accept the court’s ruling and begin educating Alabama voters on how they can vote safely and easily for the general election.”

“This ruling recognizes the hardships these laws place on Black Alabamians and those at particular risk for COVID-19. This decision will help to ease those burdens in the midst of this deadly pandemic,” said Davin Rosborough, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Merrill, in a statement to APR after the ruling, said he plans to appeal the verdict, which he likened to “judicial activism.”

“I am extremely disappointed in today’s ruling in the case of People First of Alabama v. Merrill relating to the November 3 General Election. Judge Kallon’s ruling to disallow the Secretary of State from prohibiting an illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting’ undermines the integrity of the elections process and the ability for Alabamians to cast a secret ballot as the chain of custody is then broken,” Merrill said. “It is important to remember that counties are in no way required to offer the illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting.”

Kallon in his ruling noted that “No provision of Alabama law expressly prohibits curbside or drive” but that there’s also no provision in state law allowing for the practice, and that Merrill then believes curbside voting to be illegal. Kallon also wrote that several states do allow for curbside voting, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends states allow curbside voting to comply with social distancing rules and in limiting personal contact during in-person voting.

“In addition, the photo ID and witness requirement components are necessary deterrents for those wishing to illegally influence elections,” Merrill continued. “We look forward to successfully appealing this decision as we continue fighting for safe and secure elections – free from voter fraud and judicial activism.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement said he will ask for an appeal of Kallon’s verdict.

“Back in June, the district court in this case enjoined these important protections for the primary runoff.  But the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, staying that injunction and allowing the State to enforce its laws.  We will ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to do the same again,” Marshall said. “Voting began weeks ago. And every Alabama voter is entitled to vote under the same laws, not new ones written by a federal court in the middle of voting.”

 

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Health

Gov. Kay Ivey extends statewide mask order, allows limited nursing home visitations

“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a Coronavirus update Press Conference Wednesday September 30, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended Alabama’s statewide mask order, citing the upcoming general election and a reduction in the spread of the virus since her order went into effect in July. Ivey’s new order also allows for limited visitations in state nursing homes, and keeps all other previous social distancing restrictions in place.

“I’d hate to see us pull back too quickly and negate the progress that we’ve made in our daily positive numbers and our hospitalization rates by risking another spike due to a false sense of security, the upcoming winter months, the flu season and a host of other reasons,” Ivey said during a press conference Wednesday. 

Ivey said that with the Nov. 3 Election Day nearing “it’s important to have a safe environment where our poll workers poll watchers, and those of us who would like to vote in person.” 

Ivey said that voters aren’t required to wear a mask to vote in person, “I’m certainly going to wear my mask because I want to protect the poll workers and others that are going into the polls as well.” 

via Governor’s Office

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said state hospitals are caring for about half the number of COVID-19 patients than were hospitalized in late July, during a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and just before the mask order was issued. 

“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” Harris said. “There have not been any additional restrictions imposed on our state since this Stay at Home order at the end of April.” 

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Harris noted an August study released by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that looked at that state’s jurisdictional mask orders, and found that in the 40 percent of jurisdictions that have mask orders COVID-19 cases were reduced by nearly half, compared to an increase in cases by 30 percent in jurisdictions without mask orders.  

White House Coronavirus Task Force Member Dr. Deborah Birx during a visit to Alabama last week urged Ivey to extend the mask order. Birx had praised Ivey’s statewide mask mandate during a previous visit to the state in July, when nine of the first 13 days of that month saw daily case increases in COVID-19 cases statewide of more than 1,000. 

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Ivey’s amended “safer-at-home” order also states that beginning Friday, hospitals and nursing homes shall ensure that each patient or resident can have one caregiver or visitor at a time, with some exceptions. 

Ivey’s order states that the changes are “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed on the entrance of persons because of the COVID-19 county positivity rate, the facility’s COVID-19 status, a patient’s or resident’s COVID-19 status, caregiver/visitor symptoms, lack of adherence to proper infection control practices, or other relevant factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with the following guidance from the federal government,” and goes on to list links to Centers for Medicaid and Medicaid Services guidance for the different facilities. 

Ivey said during the Wednesday press conference that none of her previous statewide orders prevented anyone from accompanying a loved one into a hospital, and said despite that, there has been some confusion on the matter. She said her amended order made that fact clear.  

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told The Montgomery Advertiser in June that hospitals have control over visitations. Hospitals statewide have enacted individual varying rules on visitations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Harris also discussed the work being done to ready the state for disbursement of a vaccine, if and when one becomes available. Harris said a plan for doing so must be given to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by mid-October. 

“Obviously, we’re following very closely the safety data and efficacy data so that we are sure that we have a vaccine product that’s going to be safe and effective,” Harris said. “And I’m confident that information will be available for us, and then we can make a really good decision on that as we start to receive this vaccine.” 

Harris said the supply of a vaccine will initially be limited, and state health officials will have to prioritize disbursement for high-risk people, including health care workers, but that the state will release its plan to do so to ensure openness in the process.

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