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“An unprecedented situation”: Sen. Doug Jones says “anything is on the table” including direct financial assistance

Chip Brownlee

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones on Tuesday said “anything is on the table” as the country reels from the spread of COVID-19, state health officials rush to try to contain the outbreak and healthcare facilities prepare for an unprecedented strain on the country’s health system.

Jones said the Senate is likely to pass the House’s coronavirus relief bill soon, but they’re already considering what more they can do in the coming weeks to try to blunt the spread of the virus and avoid an economic depression. Economists already believe a recession is assured as state governments and the federal government tamp down on economic activity and some states close restaurants, bars and other retail establishments.

Alabama’s junior senator, who has been sounding the alarm on the coronavirus for weeks, said Tuesday that the Senate is considering direct payments to Americans to help stave off financial collapse. “I’m talking about U.S. Treasury checks,” Jones said.

“I think it’s important that we strongly consider direct, monthly financial assistance for working families during this emergency period in the United States,” Jones said. “By that, I mean a United States Treasury Check. I’m not talking about paid leave or anything like that. I’m talking about direct financial assistance.”

Jones also said he would push for childcare for health care works “so that they can continue to be on the frontlines.”

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump and his COVID-19 Task Force announced that federal resources might be used to bolster health care facilities, including using military personnel and military field hospital resources. Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Tuesday that the administration supports the idea of sending direct financial assistance to families amid the crisis as part of a massive economic stimulus package of around $850 billion.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Mnuchin said. “And I mean, now in the next two weeks.”

Experts are increasingly concerned that the country’s hospitals could be overrun with COVID-19 patients who require ICU beds and ventilators and that the health system may not be able to handle the load.

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Jones said that if he was running the state, he would deploy the national guard and military reserves to begin planning to re-open closed hospitals across the state—particularly in rural areas—as a means of spreading out the workload placed on the state’s health care facilities.

“I think that all options ought to be on the table,” he said. “And we’ve got facilities there that can help people. It will be difficult getting them up and running, getting them clean, getting them in a spot where they can be used, getting them equipped to make sure that the beds have sheets and other things. I mean, it would be a lot, but I would like to think that we might be able to do that.”

He said hospitals should also begin canceling elective procedures to open up bed space.

The infectious disease specialist leading the UAB Medicine’s response to the coronavirus outbreak urged Alabamians to take social-distancing measures seriously to blunt the exponential growth of coronavirus cases in the state so as to not overload health care facilities.

On a call with reporters Monday, Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo from UAB said the closure of rural hospitals, the growth in the number of cases in the state and the potential for a ventilator or ICU bed shortage if the growth curve of COVID-19 cases isn’t blunted is “frightening.”

“In Italy, they don’t have enough,” Marrazzo said. “They are actually having to make decisions about taking people they believe are not going to survive off ventilators to reassign them to people. We do not want to be placed in that excruciating situation. It’s about the worst possible thing I can imagine as a physician, talking to a family about that or dealing with that. I don’t believe there’s any indication we’re going to get there. But again, my assurance is all based on my belief that we can deflect this curve and not be where Italy is right now.”

Marrazzo and Jones have both expressed concern that testing supplies are limited, and they have urged Alabamians who are not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms—including a fever, cough, body aches, and shortness of breath—to not seek testing at this time. There are simply not enough supplies to test everyone, though they hope more supplies will be available by the end of the week.

“First of all, we’re seeing long lines in the drive-thru test center and people are still having trouble getting a test,” Jones said. “I’ve got a friend who sent me a text just a moment ago, who’s been trying to get a test for five days. Now she’s got symptoms, she’s got a fever, she’s got respiratory issues, but she can’t get a test. And that is in part because so many people are willing to get tests that don’t really have any symptoms and aren’t really sick. I’m not criticizing. What I’m asking people to do is to hold back if you don’t have a fever and respiratory issues.”

Just how bad that strain will get is not yet known. Experts have said that more than 50 percent of the population could become infected with COVID-19—some have placed that number higher at 70 percent. Research out of China indicates that about 15 percent of people who are infected require hospitalization and about five percent require intensive care. Alabama has a population of 4.8 million. So at some point, 120,000 could require intensive care in the state and 360,000 could require hospitalization.

“What we’re doing here is to work to make sure that we can get the resources to our health care workers, our small businesses and working families,” Jones said. “I’m very concerned about this situation, but I’m also confident in our ability to rise above any adversities—to rise to the occasion and stem the tide.”

One report pushed in London and sponsored by the government of the United Kingdom found that, in an unmitigated scenario, 2.2 million people in the United States could die because of hospitals being overwhelmed. It recommended intense social distancing and other virus suppression measures until a vaccine is developed for COVID-19.

That could last for a year to 18 months.

 

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Jones urges public to heed surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday pleaded with the public to take COVID-19 seriously, especially now, as reopening of schools and Fourth of July celebrations near. Meanwhile, the state continues to see record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations. 

Alabama on Thursday saw a fourth straight day for record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations — and a record number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, when taking into account data collection problems that inflated Monday’s total.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were being treated in Alabama hospitals for COVID-19, according to the state health department. That number is an increase of nearly 22 percent over this time last week, and a near 40 percent increase compared to the beginning of June.

At least “961 of our neighbors and family members have lost their lives to COVID-19, and we need to be cognizant of that as well, as those numbers continue to grow,” Jones said during a press briefing Thursday, also noting that over the last 14 days Alabama has seen 11,091 new cases of the virus, which is 28 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases. 

Jones said that while we’re testing more people in recent weeks, The Alabama Department of Public Health’s statistics show that a greater percentage of the tests are coming back positive.

Based on a seven-day average, roughly 14 percent of the tests conducted in the state are now coming back positive. Public health experts believe that such a high percentage of positives is a sign that there continues to be community spread of the virus, and that there still isn’t enough testing being done. 

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Jones said he’s concerned, too, about the timing of the surge in new cases, coming in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey lifted her more rigorous restrictions and after Memorial Day celebrations.  

“People did not seem to get the message about social distancing and wearing masks, and we are seeing these numbers increase and increase and increase,” Jones said. 

Jones noted the state’s long lines for people seeking help with their unemployment applications, some even camping out overnight to get that help, and said he’s written a letter to Senate leadership asking for federal funding to state departments of labor to better service those in need. 

The senator also discussed Oklahoma’s recent expansion of Medicaid, and said that the action made clear state leaders there understand that during the pandemic they needed to get all the help they can to their fellow citizens. 

“It is my hope that Alabama will also do likewise. We continue to see a rise in the number of people that could benefit from expanded Medicaid,” Jones said, adding that he’s still working to get another round of incentives to states to encourage expansion of Medicaid. 

Asked if there would be another round of stimulus checks sent to individuals, Jones said “maybe.” 

Jones said the next round of COVID-19 legislation is being drafted behind closed doors by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky, and that it’s uncertain whether more direct payments to individuals will be included in the final bills. 

“I’ve heard mixed messages coming out of the administration and Senator McConnell’s office,” Jones said, adding that he’s for the additional payments and thinks it will be needed going forward. 

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, speaking during the press conference, said the Montgomery City Council could take up at the next council meeting a measure that would place guidelines on businesses within the city to be held accountable for helping enforce the city’s mask ordinance for the public. 

In the absence of a statewide mask order, local governments have been instituting their own in recent weeks. Wearing masks, staying home when at all possible and maintaining social distancing when one can’t are the best ways to reduce spread of the virus, public health experts say.

Montgomery currently has a mask order in place, which carries the possibility of a $25 fine for individuals not following the order. 

Reed said at the next meeting, council members may deliberate on a measure to require businesses help ensure the public adheres to the mask order or face possible suspension of their business license “for a couple of weeks, so that is yet to be voted on, and we will look at that.” 

Reed said that the point of the city’s mask order isn’t to fine people, however, but to encourage them to wear masks and help save lives. He noted that Montgomery’s mask order has been followed by similar orders in Mobile and Selma, as local municipalities make independent decisions to protect their fellow citizens.

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Alabama’s COVID-19 surge is not slowing

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of patients in Alabama hospitals being treated for COVID-19 surged past 800 on Thursday, marking a fourth straight day of record-high hospitalizations as concerns grow over the possibility that hospitals could become stressed due to the influx of patients.*This story was updated throughout at 4 p.m. on July 2 to reflect updated hospitalization data for Thursday.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s data. That’s more than any point prior and an increase of more than 20 percent compared to this time last week — and an increase of 40 percent compared to the beginning of June.

The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases also reached a new high Thursday, as the state added 1,162 cases. On Monday, there were 1,718 cases, but because of delays in data collection, Monday’s numbers included figures from Saturday and Sunday.

The previous daily high was June 25, when the state saw an additional 1,129 cases.

The seven-day and 14-day rolling averages of daily cases both reached record highs this week. The seven-day average reached 981 Tuesday, a record, and remains high at 979. The 14-day average reached 843 Thursday for the first time. Rolling averages are used to smooth out daily inconsistencies and variability in case reporting.

Additionally, the number of tests that are positive remains high. Taking into account incomplete data in April that inflated the numbers then, on Thursday the seven-day average of percent positivity was at 13.64, the third highest percentage since the start of the pandemic. The 14-day average of percent positivity on Thursday of 12.16 was the highest it’s been, taking into account the inflated April numbers. 

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Public health officials and experts believe the percentage of tests that are positive should be at, or preferably below, 5 percent. Any higher, and the data suggests that the state is not performing enough tests and many cases are still being missed.

At least 81 deaths have been reported in the last seven days, bringing the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 961. In the last two weeks, 160 people have died from COVID-19.

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Two more inmates at Staton prison die after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more inmates who had underlying medical conditions and were serving at the Staton Correctional Facility died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Wednesday. 

The latest deaths follow the deaths of two other men from Staton prison who died recently. The virus had spread throughout the infirmary there, and as of Wednesday, 17 inmates and 23 workers at the prison had tested positive. In total, nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus. 

Billie Joe Moore, 73, who was serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, died on June 27. He was being treated at a local hospital for advanced lung cancer and tested positive for the virus after his death, according to the department. 

Henry Robinson, 56, was taken from Staton Correctional Facility to a local hospital for treatment of chronic health conditions and tested positive for coronavirus at the hospital. He died on Tuesday at the hospital. 

Daniel Everett, 74, who had been housed in Staton’s infirmary due to previous illnesses, was tested after another inmate in the infirmary, 80-year-old Robert Stewart, tested positive for the virus and died on June 14. Everett died Tuesday as well. 

Confirmed cases among prison staff continue to balloon. ADOC announced Wednesday that four more workers self-reported positive test results.

An employee at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, one at the Fountain Correctional Facility, another at the Holman Correctional Facility and one at the Ventress Correctional Facility all tested positive for the virus. 

A worker at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women became the first prison staff to have died after testing positive for COVID-19, the department announced last week. 

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Eighty-two of 169 confirmed cases among staff remain active, and 40 of the 70 among inmates remain active, according to the department. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 396 had been tested as of Wednesday.

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Camp counselor at YMCA’s Camp Cosby tests positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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A camp counselor at YMCA’s Camp Cosby in Talladega County has tested positive for COVID-19, the organization confirmed to APR on Wednesday. 

Dan Pile, president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Birmingham, in a statement to APR said that they learned that the counselor had tested positive for the virus Wednesday afternoon. 

“The counselor is no longer at camp and is quarantining from home and is asymptomatic. Parents were notified to pick their children up this evening by 9 p.m.,” Pile said in the statement. “We are taking every step to ensure camper and employee safety including testing of all staff, and we will conduct deep cleaning of all cabins and camp facilities. Out of abundance of caution our next session will be canceled. The remaining sessions are being assessed as further information is received. We are committed to our staff and camper safety with full transparency.”

The 135-acre Camp Cosby in Alpine is a weeklong sleep-away camp for boys and girls aged 6 to 16, according to YMCA’s website. According to the website’s “Camp Cosby 2020 COVID-19 Frequently Ask Questions” page, camp started on June 14 at a 50 percent reduced capacity. 

“We will not allow more than 120-130 campers per session. 5-6 campers per cabins will only be permitted,” the website states. 

Additionally, the camp was to be cleaned and sanitized regularly, hand sanitizer used before entering buildings, hand washing stations were installed throughout the camp and temperature checks at check in and twice daily, according to the website. 

Gov. Kay Ivey on May 21 announced amendments to her “safer-at-home” order that included the opening of summer camps.

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