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State officials’ remarks to Alabamians on COVID-19

Below is a transcript of State Health Officer Scott Harris’ and EMA Director Brian Hastings’ press conference on Monday, March 16, about COVID-19.

State Health Officer Scott Harris

On the current situation: We wanted to spend a little bit of time just updating you on the situation in Alabama with regards to COVID-19 and wanted to cover some new guidance that we’re issuing today for Alabamians. As you may be aware, as of midnight last night, we had 22 cases identified so far in the state through testing. We continue to have test results that come in. I do not know of any new positive test results so far this morning. But we had 22 last night, a little over half of those were found in Jefferson County. I would say that that’s not surprising given the population of Jefferson County, but also because Jefferson County has had the most access to testing. As you may be aware, there are a couple of drive thru test sites or screening sites and test sites there. And so I think probably most of the people who have been tested in the state are from that part of the state. So we still have a total of 22 cases so far.

On testing capacity: We continue to work on increasing our testing capacity in the state. Besides these drive thru sites, and besides our Alabama State lab, we know that there are other commercial providers that are able to provide these tests. And I know many of our health care facilities are using organizations like Quest and LabCorp to carry out this testing. At this time, we do not have any issues with test capacity. We’re able to test all assembled we receive on the day that we receive them assuming they come in early enough in the day for that run. So we don’t have any concerns about capacity right now.

You may be aware that we have been working on a plan to set up screening sites around the state. Our partner, the Alabama Hospital Association, and the Medical Association of the state of Alabama has also been working with us to identify these sites and get them up and running. We have 20 sites that are identified. We’re not making that publicly available at this moment because we still need to be able to get those staffed and get those adequately equipped, but you’re probably aware there are some hospital locations in the state that have opened up their own drive through a screening clinic starting today, at least a couple that I’m aware of.

We will release more information. Hopefully later today on on how this system will work. Generally speaking, what we expect to have are testing sites, or screening sites, rather where people may call our 1-800 number, learn where’s the closest screening facility in their area, and then they can travel to that site to consult with a provider on that site to determine whether screening and testing is necessary. And then that specimen can be collected and sent for testing. And we’ll give you again, we’ll give you more information on that when we have that available.

On new social-distancing guidance: Because of the situation with COVID-19 disease throughout the country, the CDC has issued new guidance to us and so I want to share that with you today. This is not 100% equivalent to CDC guidance, but essentially is and with just a few subtleties for, for our state. At this time, the public health would like to direct Alabamians, to not be involved in mass gatherings of 50 or more people. We would direct Alabamians not to be in any gathering that cannot maintain a six foot distance between participants, with some exceptions that I’ll discuss in just a moment. This would include certain things like festivals, parades, assemblies, sporting events, and the like. Obviously, there are some essential functions in which this may not be maintained, which I’ll cover. In particular, we would issue guidance that our senior adults and those with chronic health problems, be particularly cautious about crowds and our advice would be to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people other than family gatherings. Seniors should avoid travel if at all possible and certainly should avoid travel by air, train or bus where they might be in a confined space with other people.

On retail and restaurant limitations: For retail businesses, including restaurants, the guidance that we are issuing would ask them to limit patronage to about 50% of their normal allowable capacity. Obviously, there could be some, some leeway there, depending on the size of the facility and how closely people are situated together. Restaurants ought to maintain a six foot distance between tables regardless of how many people they have in their facility. But we believe 50% of the normal allowable capacity is a pretty reasonable starting place. Public Buildings ought to consider whether visitation should be limited, or terminated. Hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living in assisted living facilities are encouraged to implement the visitation policies to protect their vulnerable people. We are asking hospitals to consider at least the possibility of delaying or canceling elective procedures, which would prevent certain vulnerable people from being in those facilities but also conserve their capacity to take care of other sick people if needed. I think all Alabamians should consider whether any out of state travel plans are truly necessary. If these are not necessary, then they ought to be delayed or canceled.

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On religious or family events: Participation in religious events or weddings, funerals or family events should just exercise prudence and common-sense precautions. Where it is possible a six-foot distance between participants ought to be encouraged. Again, certainly, that’s not possible in all cases, but we would consider, we would ask people to consider rescheduling or delaying events if that’s possible to do so. We certainly understand that religious events, in particular, are so important to so many people in our state. If there’s a possibility for meeting through webcams or video conferencing or teleconferencing, we would encourage people to do that particularly ours seniors who are most vulnerable for the disease.

On workplaces: While workplaces may not necessarily be able to heed these recommendations, we would ask them to try to do so wherever possible. It’s certainly understood that there are some essential functions from the government for municipal and state legislative bodies from healthcare facilities like clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies that may not be able to heed these and that’s certainly understandable. Where possible, again, we would consider workplaces to consider using electronic or video meetings, when that’s an option. As you may be aware of the governor directed state agencies yesterday to implement some of these policies. We have at our agency, for example, today we have asked nonessential personnel to not come to work. We’re allowing people to work at home and telework to the extent that it’s possible to do that.

On anxiety: We certainly understand there’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there. Many people are unsure what will happen and what’s coming next. This is a very fast-moving situation. But I do want to remind Alabamians that you absolutely do have the power to protect yourself and to protect your family. The normal social distancing items that we’ve been mentioning for several weeks now are what you can do. In fact, it’s actually the most you can do. It’s the most that anyone can do. Please remember to practice good hygiene. Please remember to wash your hands. Please remember to avoid crowds, as we’ve mentioned, and certainly remember to stay home. If you’re sick, reach out to your healthcare provider and get further guidance. I think if we all cooperate, if we can all manage to do this, then we’ll have a have a little bit of time where we’re inconvenienced and uncomfortable, but I know that will come out okay on the other side.

That’s all the prepared remarks I have. I’m going to turn it over to Director Hastings at this time.

EMA Director Brian Hastings

Thank you, Dr. Harris. And I first want to start off and say I’m so appreciative to be a part of Governor Ivey’s cabinet and the policy and guidance that she has given to her staff, her cabinet, and the leeway to have those authorities to do what we need to do to protect our agencies. So I want to make sure that I speak to you today as a member of Governor Ivey’s cabinet and her authorized representative for all hazards coordination, I want to talk to you as a agency lead. And I also want to talk to you as a father.

Okay, so the first thing is, Gov. Ivey has allowed her cabinet—and we are trying to model the behavior that we’re asking for businesses, society, other functions of government—to reduce the human-to-human contact to reduce the transmission of the corona virus which results in the COVID-19 disease. And so as we’re doing that, we’re implementing some of the same measures that Dr. Harris is and the other cabinet members and our counties and cities are doing. But today was the last day that I gathered the entire agency together.

To let them know, respect this disease, respect this disease. We’re taking and implementing measures to preserve our workforce and capacity because Alabama is counting on us. So we’re going to be teleworking, we’re going to be splitting and shifting our shifts to minimize the six foot, human-to-human contact, and we’re going to try to do everything virtually remotely. And as we battened down to protect our workforce, our most precious resource our people, there may be a problem with a social recession. So we need to also think about those people who are the most vulnerable in our society as we eliminate that human-to-human contact. It doesn’t mean don’t have contact with them. It doesn’t mean don’t care for them, because this is a human disease that is going to require a human response, which is going to require a whole of government response, which will require a whole of society response—a mobilization of all Alabamians, all U.S. citizens to reduce and slow the transmission of COVID-19. So it stays at or below or around the max capacity of our health care system. That is the fight that we’re in right now.

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So that was my discussion as a cabinet member and my appreciate an appreciation for the things that Governor Ivey has done to unleash the authorities of her staff during this national emergency, and Alabama public health emergency. And I want to remind everyone, this is not just a public health emergency. This is a national emergency of national security significance. All right. We don’t even have to declare a major disaster declaration. All we have to do is a federal-state agreement. We’re already there. It’s so challenging because of the nature of this disease. So now I’m going to talk to you as a father and a 27-year attack pilot.

On young people: The nature of this disease is what is causing our younger population to say I don’t fear the COVID-19. And I’m glad we don’t fear it, because fear has no place here. All right. But what I’m asking you to do is respect this disease. Please respect this disease. Because even though our younger, healthier, healthy population can be asymptomatic, or have minor symptoms, they’re still transmitting the disease. Okay, that should be concerning, right? So we could be going about our daily activities and not reducing our human-to-human contact and kind of engineering our societal behaviors and norms to reduce the contact. This is an aerosol disease transmitted through coughs, sneezes, and mucus on hands and the virus is being transmitted. So the way we do things, I mean, as simple as did you push the elevator button with your fingertip or your knuckle? Did you open the door with your hands and did everyone else or do you do with your elbow or your back? Those are minor things. But everything matters. Okay? Everything matters.

So what I just described you is that the most efficient vector of this disease is the young and healthy population that may not know they have it. And then the most vulnerable is our elderly and those who have underlying conditions that we should be concerned about, we should be concerned about we need to protect our elderly. Alright, so we’re in this together. And we’re going to do our best to share information fast because it’s a fast evolving event. And the other thing I want everyone to understand that this is a disaster, okay, that’s why we have a national emergency, and it’s going to be multifaceted.

On cyber security: For instance, you may be wondering why the hurricane and weather guy is standing in front of you today talking about cyber during a healthcare crisis. Well, the HHS just received a cyber attack today, as they’re trying to mobilize and plan a whole of government response. So as we, collectively as Alabamians and the nation are trying to minimize our human-to-human contact, and we’re incentivizing teleworking, telecommuting, putting things on the web, we’re reducing our vulnerability to one virus, and increasing our vulnerability to another virus in the cyber realm. All right. So I’m asking everyone to take this seriously. And it’s going to take everyone’s action. And Governor Ivey has given us those authorities to mobilize Alabama and to talk to you to vote to make sure that you’re empowered to do those things that we need you to do to slow the transmission of the disease. This is no time for fear. It’s time for respect and believing you have a purpose in helping those around you. That’s the nature of a whole of government and whole of society response.

That’s all I have. But I appreciate the time that Dr. Harris has given to me. I appreciate the ability that Governor Ivey has given to all her cabinet members and the functions of government to, to work collaboratively to really think through the nature of the problem. And all those consequences and unintended consequences of actions that we need to work through to keep Alabama strong, to keep Alabama healthy, and to really keep our eyes on the future and where we want to go. So thank you.


Question: You mentioned last week recommendations about schools the state responded to your recommendation about schools. But what about daycares? There are a lot of people with young children who are wondering what they should do.

Scott Harris: Right. The the order to close schools did not directly affect these daycares. Our recommendation to them is that the same as we have for others gatherings, they need to be able to maintain a six foot distance. That’s probably not a practical recommendation for daycares. And so, if they’re not able to do that, then then our recommendation would be that they close. That’s a that’s a difficult recommendation to make that affects a lot of people, the parents in particular, but also the people who are employed in that in that facility. But we think that that’s the safest recommendation we can make.

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Question: So we’re talking about kids, two kids, you know, they need to be six feet away from each other?

Scott Harris: The truth is, I don’t know that that’s a practical recommendation. I would say that that’s the model we’re asking people to think about. And if that doesn’t fit with what you’re doing, you need to consider canceling Yeah.

Question: Can you talk about testing in terms of where people can go to get information if they need to be tested? And also, what’s the turnaround time for testing?

Scott Harris: Sure. The testing as we’ve said, it has been continuing to ramp up we established last Friday, a 1-888 number that I think I gave to you on that day that people can call to get information about testing. That was actually stood up on Saturday morning, I believe. People who can call that number are directed if they have a provider to contact that provider. For those who do not have a provider relationship, there is some advice about places in their area that they can go. As we flesh out this plan to have a screening centers around the state, we certainly will flesh out that, that number as well, to make sure that we have more concrete guidelines for people, but at this time, we have been able to test those who need to be tested. As I’ve told you before, if a provider requests us to perform a test we will do that. We have stated, you know for about 10 days that our turnaround time is 24 to 72 hours. It’s probably significantly better than 72 hours and sometimes depending on when the sample comes in and when the test gets started it could even be same day but but 24 to 72 hours would be the turnaround time that we’re quoting.

Question: What can you tell people about grocery stores? This has been a weekend of people very close quarters inside a lot of grocery stores seem to have been incredibly crowded, things are selling out. Have you been in touch with the grocery store industry or anyone with the grocery stores? What can we do to prevent those types of crowds?

Scott Harris: Sure, our department has communicated through the Business Council and through others, indirectly with them. I have not personally met with them. But the same advice I would I would give to people who are doing their shopping is what we’ve given in every other realm. First of all, just remember to be prepared, but there’s no advantage to being over prepared. There is no shortage of food. There’s no shortage of things other than temporarily for paper products, as we all know about but but we have no concerns or issues that people won’t be able to access food if they need it. I would say in any type of closure activity throughout the world grocery stores have been exempted from that. And it would be no different, you know, in this state as well, grocery stores have to remain open because people have to be able to access that food. So just remember that routine preparedness is what we’re encouraging. Just like we say, when people have expect a hurricane or a tornado or an ice storm, you need to have some minimal preparation to make sure that you’re prepared. But it really doesn’t need to be anything excessive.

Question: Yeah, we talk a lot about who should be tested who should not be tested?

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Scott Harris: There’s almost no reason to test a patient who does not have symptoms. Now, there may be some individual medical conditions or individual cases that a provider would decide to test someone who does not have symptoms. But if you’re someone who does not have these symptoms of fever or cough or shortness of breath, we really don’t want you to seek a test. First of all, even getting a negative test result today wouldn’t tell us anything about you tomorrow, you know

You could be negative today. And obviously we can’t test every person every day for as long as they want to be tested. But secondly, there is, you know, at some point, a total capacity of tests that we can do. So we would ask people who aren’t symptomatic to avoid getting tested so that we can test those people who are most at risk. And we can get those results back in a timely manner to those physicians and other providers that are taking care of vulnerable people that need those tests results quickly.

Question: Do we know how long a person that is asymptomatic would carry this?

Scott Harris: We don’t know for sure. There’s different data on that. Generally speaking, when someone is exposed, if they if they become infected, they may show symptoms anywhere between two days and 14 days. And that’s how we’ve arrived at this 14 day self isolation. But in terms of how long they carry the virus virus afterwards, there’s a lot of different data and it’s really new and there’s really no solid conclusions about it. Clearly, there are some people that shed some virus if you test them, you know, days and days after they’ve gotten well. But whether those people actually have enough virus to be infectious to others, we just don’t know right now.

Question: The private groups, for instance, Walmart and other groups that have been doing this testing, has that lifted a burden off of ADP?

Scott Harris: Oh, I would say that any group that’s doing testing is helpful. I mean, it allows more opportunities for testing. And it lets a provider have more more options, I guess. And we we think that’s a great thing. As you may be aware, HHS has a plan through FEMA to open some mass screening and testing sites as well. They announced that last night, we’re still not sure what that plan looks like in Alabama, but they’re certainly reaching out to all the states to see if there’s a need for or availability of locations to host those kind of sites. So we think the more testing options available, the better for everyone.

Question: Do you think limiting the capacity in restaurants and other public places do you think that goes far enough? Because as late as over the weekend, our Secretary of State’s considered postponing the runoff election.

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Scott Harris: Yeah, right. I think I think that’s a question that we don’t know the answer to right now. And the truth is, with all of our guidelines, what we’re really trying to do or make guidelines that are going to be pertinent two weeks from now, and it’s really hard to see into the future and decide that, you know, we have 22 cases in a state of 4.8 million people. And that doesn’t sound like that much. And yet, we know that that’s a significant amount. We know there are many people that haven’t been tested that probably should be. So we’re doing our best to be responsible in what we recommend. We have to consider all the factors and on balance, I think that’s the right recommendation for this time.

Question: Can you talk a little bit more about your travel recommendations, this is spring break and going into spring break for a lot of people who are planning to leave the state? Be more specific about what would be considered a dangerous or potentially dangerous travel plan and what may not be?

Scott Harris: Yeah, so again, whatever strategies that we keep talking about it really comes down to a six foot rule. And I think that’s the most important thing. Traveling anywhere now could be considered a risk, because you know, most of our major cities have cases and have a number of cases. All the states, I think every state but one perhaps, has reported cases to this point. So there’s certainly some risk in different places. If you’re planning to fly, if you’re planning to take a bus, if you’re planning to travel in a in a closed in environment, I think that puts you at some risk. If you’re planning to be at a location where you’re congregating with lots of people in a tight environment, I think that puts you at some risk. So I think we can all imagine, you know, a vacation plan that doesn’t pose much risk. And I would just ask everybody to think very carefully about what their plans are, if it’s really necessary, if it could be delayed, or what kind of risks they’re going to face. And again, that’s particularly important for our most vulnerable citizens to think about.

Question: Do our hospitals have enough beds and ventilators?

Scott Harris: Do we have enough beds and ventilators? Yes, we have been tracking the number of our bed capacity and our ventilators for about a week now using the Alabama Incident Management System. Hospitals include that information every day updated at least daily or more often, if we request it. At this time, we do not have any hospitals that are having issues with surge capacity that we’re aware of. And, and we track that daily. So so we don’t think that’s an issue at the moment. Clearly, that’s always a concern when you’re when you’re dealing with a respiratory illness like this, and so we’ll continue to monitor that.

Update on Lee County case connected to East Alabama Medical Center: I just got one update. We have one particular case that we learned about last night which was in Lee County you might be aware of that was posted last night. It’s been announced today by the hospital there that that was a hospital employee. And so we’ve just had been on calls with that facility and they were wanting to make that statement which they have just publicly released. So we have staff that is actively investigating that and tracing those contacts, we they have a very good plan in place to make sure that facility is clean and make sure that any employee who was potentially in contact with this sick person is is monitored at home. This particular person is self monitoring at home at this time, and that is all the details that I have about that. I’ll be glad to get you some more as soon as we have that available.

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Written By

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.