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“We must all do better:” Hundreds of Tuscaloosa COVID-19 tests rejected

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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UPDATE: This story has been updated with new information from DCH Health System.

The new information indicates that most of the 528 untested samples were not able to be tested because there was a lack of testable material, not because of an issue with sample storage during transport, which was initially cited by the hospital as one reason the samples were not able to be tested at the state’s lab.

The hospital says it will continue testing, but it will move to swab tests only and supplies are “critically low.”

Only those with COVID-19 symptoms will be tested. DCH is also working to source new testing supplies because their current stock could run out early next week.

You can read the hospital’s full update at the bottom of this story.


More than 500 samples collected from people at a hospital in Tuscaloosa who were seeking a test for COVID-19 over the last week were spoiled or unable to be tested.

DCH Health in Tuscaloosa sent more than 1,000 samples to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s state lab over the four days. At least 528 of the samples were not sufficient to be tested primarily because of a lack of testable material, according to the hospital, and at least some of the insufficient samples were spoiled during transport.

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“We must all learn quickly and we must all do better for Tuscaloosa and our state,” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said Friday night.

Only 40 of the tests collected over the past four days have been processed, and one of them was positive. More than 400 tests remain to be processed from the DCH testing site.

Tuscaloosa County has reported four cases of COVID-19 so far, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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The testing issues in Tuscaloosa resulted from a testing resource and material shortage. That’s been a problem in Alabama and across the country, as a number of hospitals and testing sites have repeatedly said their supplies are severely limited. Some, including DCH, are warning that their supplies could run out early next week.

DCH, in particular, has had a limited supply of nasal swabs used to collect testing specimens and viral transport media, the containers used to ship samples for testing. “The nation has a shortage of the viral transport media required to use nasal swabs, there isn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of our community,” the hospital said Wednesday.

Despite the shortage, the hospital tried to keep testing. Medical practitioners have tried to use an alternative method of using sputum—a method the Alabama Department of Public Health suggested the hospital use. But some people were not able to produce enough sputum—a mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract.

Some of those who weren’t able to produce enough sputum were told at the site that they couldn’t be tested. Others had their samples sent to the ADPH, but the lab wasn’t able to test the samples because there wasn’t a big enough sample of sputum to run the test.

In an initial statement Friday, the hospital said a sizeable portion of the samples were spoiled because of insufficient cooling during the transport process to Montgomery, where the state lab is located. After further investigation, the hospital said Saturday that it appears most of the specimens that weren’t able to be tested were not able to be tested because the sample wasn’t large enough.

“Feedback from the state lab has indicated that the high rate of rejected sputum specimens was not primarily due to improper transport and spoiling (this was given as one of the reasons for rejected samples statewide),” the hospital said Saturday. “The sputum samples from DCH were primarily rejected due to a lack of testable material (not enough sputum in the collection cup).”

DCH Health said in its statement that visually screening the samples at the collection site has been very difficult because of the protective measures in place to prevent medical practitioners from being exposed to the virus.

“So now only swabs will be done so that the provider can better directly control the adequacy of material collected,” the hospital’s statement reads. But supplies remain severely low. DCH says it is working with FEMA, ADPH and the federal government to get more swab test kits to meet the needs of the Tuscaloosa community—as soon as possible.

“Only swab tests will be conducted and the supply is critically low,” the hospital says.

Only those screened with symptoms indicating a high likelihood of infection will have a specimen collected for testing. Those whose record indicates the sample was insufficient for a test can go back and get retested, the hospital said. Results should be available on each individual’s patient portal within about five days.

DCH is not the only hospital to report a shortage of testing materials in the state. Hospitals are increasingly asking people who only have mild or moderate symptoms to not seek a test. They say they are trying to conserve supplies for those who have more severe symptoms and may need emergent care.

East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, near Auburn, said Wednesday evening that they’re working hard to deal with hundreds of phone calls and an escalating number of people showing up at their testing sites with symptoms seeking a test.

Mobile County in South Alabama issued a public notice this week, saying that testing in the county will likely remain limited for the time being because of supply shortages. “Very limited testing is available because of a lack of federal supplies,” the Mobile County Health Department said.

UAB plans to open a drive-in, appointment-only testing facility on Monday, but they say they will only be able to test 250 people per day. The hospital said it is sourcing its own supplies for testing and testing in its own lab to avoid the supply chain problems faced by other hospitals.

Though the testing shortage does not appear to be related to public and commercial labs’ ability to run the samples, it is taking up to five days for test results to come back from the state’s lab in some cases. And in some private labs, it is taking up to 72 hours if not longer.


DCH’s full March 21 update on testing:

DCH will be offering the screening/testing service tomorrow, Sunday, March 22, from 2-5 p.m. in the parking lot just west of its Regional Medical Center campus. The times are consistent with staff availability and potential poor weather. Only swab tests will be conducted and the supply is critically low. This means only those screened with symptoms indicating a high likelihood of infection will have a specimen collected for testing.

The service will resume 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday next week as long as supplies remain available and the weather allows for the process to safely continue. Additional measures being taken to improve and continue the effort include:

  •  Adding a tent that vehicles can drive into which will facilitate continued screening during moderate rain.
  • Seeking additional resources including testing with other labs and new sources for supplies. Current supply levels of swabs will only last through early next week so an extensive effort is underway to find more.
  • Refining the process for screening.

Feedback from the state lab has indicated that the high rate of rejected sputum specimens was not primarily due to improper transport and spoiling (this was given as one of the reasons for rejected samples statewide). The sputum samples from DCH were primarily rejected due to a lack of testable material (not enough sputum in the collection cup). Visually screening the samples at the collection site has been very difficult due to the protective measures in place so now only swabs will be done so that the provider can better directly control the adequacy of material collected.

If you had a specimen collected you can check your results on the DCH portal. It takes about five days for results at the moment. If your record indicates the sample was insufficient for a test and you are feeling worse, please know you can come back and get retested or see/call your doctor. False negatives are not impossible and even if negative you can still get infected later. You should practice social distancing for at least 14 days from the onset of symptoms.

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.

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UAB doctor urges public get flu vaccine as COVID-19 continues to spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Erin DeLaney, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at UAB’s School of Medicine, speaking to reporters on Thursday. 

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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Poll: 24 percent say that they will definitely not get a new COVID-19 vaccine

Brandon Moseley

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A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of American adults who will get the new coronavirus vaccine has dropped to just 51 percent. At least 24 percent were adamant that they will definitely not get the new vaccine, while another 25 percent answered that they will probably not take the new vaccine if and when it is approved.

Just about half of U.S. adults, some 51 percent, now say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 if it were available today.

The percentage who would get the vaccine if it was available has fallen dramatically from the 72 percent who answered that they would take it back in May.

The share who say that they would definitely get a coronavirus vaccine has now dropped to just 21 percent — down from 42 percent in May. Some 30 percent answered that they would probably take the vaccine.

The vaccine is more popular with Democrats than Republicans, but those willing to get vaccinated has dropped among all demographics. Just 17 percent of those who identify as being Republican or leaning Republican say that they will definitely get the vaccine versus 24 percent for Democrats or lean Democrat.

Some 30 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats answered that they will definitely not get the vaccine if it were available — up from 15 percent and 8 percent in May.

Fifty-six percent of men answered that they will definitely or probably get vaccinated while just 49 percent of women said the same. Some 52 percent of whites will definitely or probably get vaccinated, while just 32 percent of Black people — the demographic which generally has the worst COVID-19 outcomes — responded that they will get the vaccine.

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Seventy-one percent of Asians and 56 percent of Hispanics say that they will definitely or probably get the vaccine.

Some 57 percent of those who are planning to get a vaccine say that they would be a little (36 percent) or a lot (21 percent) less likely to do so if they had to pay for it themselves, and 42 percent said that out-of-pocket costs would not change their likelihood of getting the vaccine.

Public health officials worry that if less than half of the population even gets vaccinated then herd health immunity will not be achieved through vaccination and the coronavirus could continue to spread.

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The new national survey by the Pew Research Center was conducted between Sept. 8 to 13 among 10,093 U.S. adults.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson announced that they have begun the third and final phase of vaccination trials. Sixty thousand people age 18 and over are participating in five countries including the U.S.

Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have been in phase 3 trials for weeks now and have suggested they may have enough data to know whether their vaccines are safe and effective by October or November of this year.

AstraZeneca suspended their trials in the U.S. after the early results showed some side effect issues, though those trials have since resumed.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a one shot vaccine while the other three require a second booster shot, doubling the logistical issues associated with mass vaccination.

President Donald Trump has said that the vaccine could be available at that time, but CDC Director Robert Redfield has scoffed at that optimistic timelines, saying he anticipates a vaccine not being ready until the middle of next year.

White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci testified to Congress on Wednesday that vaccine production is already underway so that if one of the four companies in trials now receive FDA approval, ramp up time to full production will be minimal.

Redfield told Congress this week that the CDC urgently needs $6 billion for COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts.

Globally 982,513 people, including 206,598 Americans, have died from COVID-19 and more than 32 million people globally have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 7,140,137 Americans.

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Congress

Sewell votes to keep government open, extend programs

Brandon Moseley

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Congresswoman Terri Sewell (VIA CSPAN)

Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, this week voted for a measure to continue funding for the programs contained in the 12 annual appropriation acts for FY2020. The bill, HR8337, passed the House in a final vote of 359 to 57 and 1.

“I voted for today’s legislation to avert a catastrophic government shutdown and fund the critical programs that my constituents depend on,” Sewell said.

“At a time when our country is in the middle of a pandemic and millions of Americans are losing their homes and livelihoods to natural disasters, including hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, our government needs to be fully funded and operational so that the American people can get the resources they need,” Sewell said. “I am particularly proud of the provisions Democrats secured to save our seniors from a Medicare Part B premium hike, protect health, housing, and other programs for Veterans, and to provide repayment relief for our health care providers at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The resolution provides funding for critical government programs through Dec. 11 and extends vital health, surface transportation and veterans’ programs.

“While I’m disappointed that Senate Republicans and White House didn’t come to the table to agree to pass the long-term FY2021 funding bills that the House passed earlier this year, I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure a long-term funding bill is passed before this CR expires in December,” Sewell said. “Additionally, an agreement on further Coronavirus relief legislation is desperately needed. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and as the pandemic continues, municipalities, health care providers, essential workers, and small businesses are running out of resources from the CARES Act and relief is needed now.”

HR8337 included a list of programs that Sewell worked directly with House appropriators to secure in the FY2020 funding bill, which are extended in Tuesday’s continuing resolution. These include:

  • Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program Loans
  • Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program
  • Commodity Supplemental Food program
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program
  • 2020 Decennial Census Program
  • Community Health Centers
  • Teaching Health Centers Graduate Medical Education Program
  • Special Diabetes Program
  • Grants for transportation to VA medical facilities for Veterans living in “highly rural” areas
  • Childcare assistance for Veterans while they receive health care at a VA facility
  • An initiative to assess the feasibility of paying for veterans in highly rural areas to travel to the nearest Vet Center, a community-based facility that provides readjustment counseling and other services

The bill also funded the Department of Labor’s homeless veteran reintegration programs, such as job training, counseling and placement services.

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Additionally, the legislation:

  • Ensures USDA can fully meet the demand for Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans, especially for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers
  • Allows increased flexibility for the Small Business Administration to process certain small business loans and SBA Disaster Loans
  • Provides a one-year extension for surface transportation programs, including federal highway, transit, and road safety programs
  • Reauthorizes the Appalachian Regional Commission for one year
  • Delays a scheduled $4 billion reduction in funding for disproportionate share hospital (DSH), which are hospitals that serve large numbers of low-income and uninsured patients
  • Protects Medicare beneficiaries from the expected increase in Part B premiums for 2021 that is likely to result from the COVID-19 public health emergency
  • Provides repayment relief to health care providers by extending the time in which they must repay advances and reducing the interest rate under the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment program until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Allows Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to use the full amount available in the Disaster Relief Fund to respond to declared disasters
  • Increases accountability in the Commodity Credit Corporation, preventing funds for farmers from being misused for large oil companies
  • Ensures schoolchildren receive meals despite the pandemic’s disruption of their usual schedules, whether virtual or in-person, and expands Pandemic EBT access for young children in childcare

It has been 20 years since Congress has passed a balanced budget.

Sewell is running for her sixth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional District. Sewell has no Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 General Election.

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SBA offers disaster assistance to businesses, residents affected by Hurricane Sally

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Businesses and residents in Alabama counties designated as disaster areas after Hurricane Sally can now apply for low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Small Business Administration administrator Jovita Carranza issued a statement following the announcement of the presidential disaster declaration, which began Sept. 14.

“The SBA is strongly committed to providing Alabama residents with the most effective response possible to assist businesses, homeowners and renters with federal disaster loans,” Carranza said. “Getting businesses and communities up and running after a disaster is our highest priority.”

The disaster declaration covers Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile counties in Alabama, which are eligible for both physical and economic injury disaster loans from the SBA.

Small businesses and most private nonprofit organizations in the following adjacent counties are eligible to apply only for SBA economic injury disaster loans: Clarke, Connecuh, Covington, Monroe and Washington in Alabama.

Due to COVID-19, the SBA will not establish a field presence to assist survivors. The SBA, however, will continue to provide customer service and conduct outreach virtually with webinars, Skype calls, phone assistance and step-by-step application assistance.

The SBA has opened a virtual disaster loan outreach center/business recovery center to help survivors apply online using the electronic loan application via the SBA’s secure website at disasterloanassistance.sba.gov.

Virtual customer support representatives are available to help applicants complete the online application daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. E.T. at [email protected] and 800-659-2955.

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These services are only available for the Alabama disaster declaration as a result of Hurricane Sally beginning Sept. 14, 2020, and not for COVID-19 related assistance.

Survivors should contact the SBA’s Disaster Customer Service Center at 800-659-2955 to schedule an appointment for assistance in completing their loan applications. Requests for SBA disaster loan program information may be obtained by emailing [email protected]

The SBA will conduct extensive outreach to ensure that those affected by the disaster have an opportunity to apply for assistance.

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Businesses and private nonprofit organizations of any size may borrow up to $2 million to repair or replace disaster damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets. Applicants may be eligible for a loan amount increase up to 20 percent of their physical damages, as verified by the SBA for mitigation purposes.

Eligible mitigation improvements may include a safe room or storm shelter, sump pump, French drain or retaining wall to help protect property and occupants from future damage caused by a similar disaster.

For small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and most private nonprofit organizations, the SBA offers economic injury disaster loans to help meet working capital needs caused by the disaster.

Economic injury disaster loan assistance is available regardless of whether the business suffered any physical property damage.

Disaster loans up to $200,000 are available to homeowners to repair or replace disaster damaged or destroyed real estate. Homeowners and renters are eligible up to $40,000 to repair or replace disaster damaged or destroyed personal property.

Interest rates are as low as 3 percent for businesses, 2.75 percent for nonprofit organizations and 1.188 percent for homeowners and renters with terms up to 30 years. Loan amounts and terms are set by the SBA and are based on each applicant’s financial condition.

Applicants may apply online using the electronic loan application via the SBA’s secure website at disasterloanassistance.sba.gov.

To be considered for all forms of disaster assistance, applicants should register online at disasterassistance.gov or download the FEMA mobile app. If online or mobile access is unavailable, applicants should call the FEMA toll-free helpline at 800-621-3362. Those who use 711-Relay or Video Relay Services should call 800-621-3362.

Businesses and individuals may also obtain information and loan applications by calling the SBA’s customer service center at 1-800-659-2955 (1-800-877-8339 for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), or by emailing [email protected] Loan applications can also be downloaded at sba.gov.

Completed applications should be mailed to: U.S. Small Business Administration, Processing and Disbursement Center, 14925 Kingsport Road, Fort Worth, TX 76155. The filing deadline to return applications for physical property damage is Nov. 19, 2020. The deadline to return economic injury applications is June 21, 2021.

The disaster declaration means that federal funding is available to state, tribal and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile counties and for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Pete Gaynor is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Gaynor has named Allan Jarvis as the federal coordinating officer for federal recovery operations in the affected areas.

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