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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Coronavirus task force’s Dr. Deborah Birx says Alabama should extend statewide mask order
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said Thursday that Gov. Kay Ivey should extend her statewide mask order, set to expire on Oct. 2. She also responded to a CNN report that cited those close to her as saying she’s “distressed” with the direction the White House coronavirus task force is taking and is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role in the group.
Birx, speaking at Auburn University, said she met with Ivey and Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris earlier in the day to discuss COVID-19 and how the state is responding.
“So we really talked about the importance of continuing mitigation,” Birx said of her talk with Ivey and state officials earlier on Thursday, adding that Ivey was one of the first governors in the South to enact a statewide mask mandate, which she said clearly decreased the spread of the disease.
Birx pointed to numbers, such as the test positivity rate, that have improved since July, but said “we’ve got to do even more.” Asked if the statewide mask mandate was one of the mitigation efforts she suggests continuing into the fall, Birx said she does. “Because if you look at what happened within two weeks of the mask mandate you can see the dramatic decline in cases here in Alabama,” Birx said.
Birx said that when she last visited Alabama in July, the state was suffering from too many new cases of COVID-19.
“I think when I was last here at the beginning of July, it was a very difficult time in general for Alabama. We saw nearly 95 to 100 percent of every county in Alabama, rural or urban, that had more than 10 percent test positivity to COVID-19,” Birx said, adding that today, around 20 percent of the state’s counties have positivity rates above 10 percent.
Public health experts believe positivity rates above 5 percent mean that there isn’t enough COVID-19 testing being done and cases are likely going undetected.
In a statement to APR on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Ivey said Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris would provide an update on the statewide mask order ahead of its Oct. 2 expiration date.
“It is evident that Alabamians are doing considerably well in modifying their behaviors to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and we all remain optimistic that a successful vaccine will be coming soon,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, in a statement to APR on Thursday. “Our state’s success is largely in part to Alabamians stepping up to the plate when it comes to cooperating with the mask ordinance.”
Maiola said Ivey is leading the way on several fronts “including getting students and teachers back in the classroom, college students returning to campus and businesses remaining open — in fact, Alabama has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates.”
“This success is a reality because Alabamians are wearing their masks and maintaining social distancing precautions. Governor Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris will continue closely monitoring our progress and provide an update ahead of the October 2nd expiration,” Maiola continued.
Speaking to reporters at Auburn, Birx was also asked about a CNN report on Wednesday that cited sources close to Birx as saying she is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role on the White House coronavirus task force, that she’s not certain how long she can serve in her position and that she is “distressed” with the direction the task force is taking.
CNN also reported that Birx, who is no longer a fixture at White House coronavirus briefings, views Dr. Scott Atlas, a recent addition to the task force, as an unhealthy influence on President Donald Trump.
Atlas, a neuroradiologist with little experience in public health or epidemiology, has expressed support for the so-called herd immunity “strategy,” which infectious disease expert roundly dismiss as unattainable and a move that would cost millions more lives.
Instead of being a regular presence at White House coronavirus briefings, Birx has spent recent months traveling the country and speaking with governors and university administrators about coronavirus.
Asked Thursday about CNN’s reporting, Birx pushed back.
“Because they wrote that without even speaking to me,” Birx said. “Do I look like a person that’s diminished?”
CNN reported Wednesday that Birx had not responded to requests for comment on the story.
“Yes, I have been on the road. I’ve been on the road not as a spokesperson, but on the road to really understand what’s happening across the country, to be in deep dialogue with mayors, with communities, with governors, with administration school and faculty,” Birx said.
“I’m asked here because I am supposed to be here,” Birx said. “I haven’t been in Washington, and nor was I asked about that, but I’ve actually never been called diminished.”
Asked if she was planning to leave the task force, Birx said, “I have strong tenacity, and I’m very resilient, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s affecting Americans, and as an American, I think I can do the best service to my country right now by serving in this role, working across the agencies, because that’s the experience that I have.”
Asked to clarify whether she planned to step down from the task force, Birx said “no.”
Asked if she was distressed about the direction the task force is taking, Birx said, “well that would be on me, if I was distressed, right, because I’m supposed to be coordinating the groups.”
“So that would be an indication that I’m not doing my job, and I believe that I do my job pretty well every day. I can always learn to do better,” Birx said.
UAB doctor urges public get flu vaccine as COVID-19 continues to spread
As the flu season nears, Alabama health care providers are encouraging the public to get flu vaccines to prevent stressing hospitals, which continue to care for COVID-19 patients.
“We just are really encouraging everyone to go ahead and get vaccinated,” said Dr. Erin DeLaney, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at UAB’s School of Medicine, speaking to reporters on Thursday.
DeLaney said physicians are encouraging flu vaccinations, regular hand washing and social distancing because they’re not sure what flu and COVID could look like together.
“We know that there are other respiratory pathogens that together, combined with the influenza virus, can have poor outcomes,” DeLaney said. “And we know that the flu and COVID separately can have poor outcomes, so we’re hoping to protect as many people as we can.”
DeLaney also discussed what will likely be the challenge for the public in attempting to determine whether they have the flu or COVID-19, which would prompt them to seek coronavirus testing.
“Unfortunately, coronavirus and influenza, they will share a lot of the same symptoms,” DeLaney said. “The only thing that’s going to be completely different would be the loss of sense of taste and smell, is specific to COVID.”
DeLaney said the medical community will have to rely on testing to determine between a case of influenza or COVID-19, and recommended that if a person isn’t able to get a coronavirus test they should assume they have COVID-19 and self-quarantine for 14 days.
Taking a clue from areas of the world that have already seen the start of the flu season, DeLaney said it appears that the spread of flu in those areas has been lighter this year, most likely because of what’s being done to protect people from COVID-19, including the wearing of masks, social distancing and regularly washing hands.
“We are hopeful that would also be our same experience as we enter our flu season — that if people are vigilant with COVID that it would protect us from not only the flu but other respiratory pathogens as well,” DeLaney said.
Speaking about the upcoming Halloween holiday, DeLaney said if families decide to go door-to-door with their children, eager for candy, masks should be worn. Masks that come with costumes do not provide protection, however, and DeLaney said they don’t recommend placing cloth masks over costume masks either. Medical providers are encouraging kids to wear Halloween-themed cloth masks instead.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages families giving out candy on Halloween not to put the candy in a bowl for children to reach into, but instead suggest placing candy into separate bags and to place the bags outside the home.
She also recommended other outdoor activities in lieu of door-to-door candy gathering.
“So an outdoor pumpkin carving. Playing some Halloween music outside or having different types of activities where people are not going to be gathering closely, or not all touching the same things, would be ideal,” DeLaney said.
There have been 148,206 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alabama as of Thursday, when the state added 1,052 new cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. As of Thursday, 2,506 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19, 18 of which were added on Thursday.
Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers
APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.
It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.
“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.
APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.
Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.
While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”
The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.
In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.
“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”
While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.
There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.
Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.
The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.
“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”
Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”
While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.
Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.
An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.
Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.
SPLC report: Despite COVID-19 deaths, Alabama isn’t releasing older, at-risk inmates
A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center published Tuesday found that almost 200 older state inmates, at greater risk from COVID-19, were eligible for parole, but either had no hearing or were denied parole over the summer.
Alabama’s three-member Board of Pardons and Paroles denied parole for 44 people who were 65 and older over the summer, SPLC’s report states, and a dozen of the more than 1,100 older inmates identified in a previous SPLC report have since died, either from COVID-19 or other illnesses.
“Despite confirming the deaths, it remains unclear whether the cause could have been COVID-19 as ADOC would not provide information about those individuals in response to a public records request, citing ongoing internal investigations,” the report reads.
The SPLC and several other criminal justice reform groups urged the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to take steps to release at-risk inmates as the coronavirus pandemic began, through medical parole, medical furloughs and judicial sentence reviews, but to date, no such larger push to release inmates has taken place.
According to ADOC, 22 inmates have died after testing positive for COVID-19.
SPLC’s report notes that many of the inmates who died had underlying health conditions, which were well known to prison officials.
The Parole Board denied parole to more than three dozen inmates 65 or older since restarting parole hearings in May, according to the report.
“The BPP stopped paroles starting in March, against the demands of activists and legislators who pointed out that hearings could be done virtually. Hundreds of scheduled parole hearings were cancelled. After its hiatus, the BPP scheduled relatively few hearings throughout the summer compared to years past,” authors of the report wrote.