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Opinion | Ainsworth: Closing schools is the right call in the fight against COVID-19

Will Ainsworth

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Will Ainsworth is Alabama’s lieutenant governor.

Governor Kay Ivey, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey and the members of his learning options task force deserve commendation for making the difficult decision to keep K-12 public schools across Alabama physically closed for the remainder of the academic year.

The closure certainly disappoints students who will remain separated from their teachers and classmates for the time being, and some parents may even be wary of its necessity, but the public health and safety of millions of Alabamians demanded that it be done.

Consider for a moment that in the past two weeks, almost 550 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Alabama, and those numbers continue to climb dramatically each day. Deaths are beginning to occur across the state, and dozens of Alabamians are at this moment fighting for their lives on ICU ventilators.

Proms and graduation ceremonies can be held at a later date, and extracurricular activities and sports can be postponed, but protecting our families and stopping the spread of this invisible killer requires us to take action now.

My wife, Kendall, and I are parents to twin boys, Hunter and Hays, who are in fourth grade, and a daughter, Addie, who is in second grade, so we understand that the responsibility of continuing their education falls on our shoulders for the foreseeable future.

Each parent across the state is going to have to set up and follow a school structure from home for their children in order to ensure they do not fall behind academically. Parental responsibility has never been more important.

To assist in those efforts, Dr. Mackey and his task force are working with each school district to provide instructional support to homebound students through distance learning, which allows teachers to share lessons, answer questions, and give assignments using broadband Internet and video technology.

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Dr. Mackey and team have published guidance that will help school districts be able to serve students who do not have access to broadband internet. In some cases, instructional packets will be assembled and sent to the home, and completed assignments will be returned through the mail.

Alabama Public Television has also committed to broadcast classroom instructional programs for K-12 public school students studying at home.

Many students from low-income backgrounds depend upon their schools to provide free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches and supplement the nutrition that they may be lacking at home.

To help ensure these students receive the nourishment they need, a number of locations across the state are making free meals available to any child who is 18-years-old or younger. No paperwork is required, and no questions are asked, but to ensure social distancing is maintained, the meals must be picked up onsite and consumed elsewhere.

A list of feeding locations in cities, towns, and communities across Alabama may be found by visiting www.breakforaplate.com on the Internet.

Likewise, in areas where school supplies prove scarce or difficult to acquire, school systems may deliver them to students according to bus routes.

Local systems will be working, as well, to provide necessary services and continuing support to students with disabilities and special needs.

Reopening our classrooms in the long-term will depend upon every Alabamian following social distancing, self-isolation, and other public health guidelines in the short-term.

Even with hospitals in New York, California, and Louisiana exceeding capacity and COVID-19 cases in Alabama on the rise, too many among us are not taking the threat seriously, and by doing so, they are endangering themselves and everyone they encounter.

The best way to stop this virus is to act as if you have the virus by staying home, avoiding public situations to the fullest extent possible, and using simple common sense.

As I have noted before, Alabamians have always shown courage in a crisis, so the best way that we can all stand together against COVID-19 is by staying apart.

The on-going pandemic has forced many inconveniences and changes in our daily lives, and the closure of schools for the coming months certainly ranks high among them.

But emptying our schools to protect the public health and safety is far better than having them empty because our children are sick and fighting for their lives against the COVID-19 virus.

 

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Opinion | With COVID-19 policy, don’t blame your umbrella. The rain got you wet

Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, and Ellen Eaton, M.D.

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Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, is an assistant professor of health services administration and Ellen Eaton, M.D., is an assistant professor of infectious diseases.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this perspective are those of the authors.


As states re-open for business, many governors cite the devastating impact of physical distancing policies on local and state economies. Concerns have reached a fever pitch. Many Americans believe the risk of restrictive policies limiting business and social events outweighs the benefit of containing the spread of COVID-19.

But the proposed solution to bolster the economy — re-opening businesses, restaurants and even athletic events — does not address the source of the problem.

A closer look at the origins of our economic distress reminds us that it is COVID-19, not shelter-in-place policy, that is the real culprit. And until we have real solutions to this devastating illness, the threat of economic fallout persists.

Hastily transitioning from stay-at-home to safer-at-home policy is akin to throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.

The novelty of this virus means there are limited strategies to prevent or treat it. Since humans have no immunity to it, and to date, there are no approved vaccines and only limited treatments, we need to leverage the one major tool at our disposal currently: public health practices including physical distancing, hand-washing and masks.

As early hot spots like New York experienced alarming death tolls, states in the Midwest and South benefited from their lessons learned.

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Indeed, following aggressive mandates around physical distancing, the number of cases and hospitalizations observed across the U.S. were initially lower than projected. Similarly, the use of masks has been associated with a reduction in cases globally.

As the death toll surpasses 100,000, the U.S. is reeling from COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. In addition, the U.S. has turned its attention to “hot spots” in Southern states that have an older, sicker and poorer population. And to date, minority and impoverished patients bear the brunt of COVID-19 in the South.

Following the first COVID-19 case in Alabama on March 13, the state has experienced 14,730 confirmed cases, 1,629 hospitalizations and 562 deaths, according to health department data as of Monday afternoon.

Rural areas face an impossible task as many lack a robust health care infrastructure to contend with outbreaks, especially in the wake of recent hospital closures. And severe weather events like tornadoes threaten to divert scarce resources to competing emergencies.

Because public health interventions are the only effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, all but essential businesses were shuttered in many states. State governments are struggling to process the revenue shortfalls and record surge in unemployment claims that have resulted.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, allocated $150 billion to state governments, with a minimum of $1.25 billion per state. Because the funds were distributed according to population size, 21 states with smaller populations received the minimum of $1.25 billion.

Although states with larger populations, such as Alabama and Louisiana, received higher appropriations in absolute terms, they received less in relative terms given their COVID-19 related medical and financial strain: the CARES Act appropriations do not align resources with state need.

As unemployment trust funds rapidly deplete, these states have a perverse incentive to reopen the economy.

Unemployment claimants who do not return to work due to COVID-19 fears, per the Alabama Department of Labor, can be disqualified from benefits, perpetuating the myth of welfare fraud to vilify those in need.

The United States Department of Labor also emphasized that unemployment fraud is a “top priority” in guidance to states recently.

Prematurely opening the economy before a sustained decline in transmission is likely to refuel the pandemic and, therefore, prolong the recession. Moreover, it compromises the health of those who rely most heavily on public benefits to safely stay home and flatten the curve.

Some would counter this is precisely why we should reopen — for the most vulnerable, who were disproportionately impacted by stay-at-home orders.

The sad reality, however, is that long-standing barriers for vulnerable workers in access to health care, paid sick leave and social mobility pre-date this crisis and persist. And we know that many vulnerable Americans work on the frontlines of foodservice and health care support where the risk from COVID-19 is heightened.

A return to the status quo without addressing this systemic disadvantage will only perpetuate, rather than improve, these unjust social and economic conditions.

COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in our state and nation, and re-opening businesses will not provide a simple solution to our complex economic problems.

No one would toss out their umbrella after several sunny days so why should America abandon public health measures now? After all, rain is unpredictable and inevitable just like the current COVID-19 crisis.

The threat of COVID-19 resurgence will persist until we have effective preventive and treatment options for this novel infectious disease.

So let’s not blame or, worse, discard the umbrella. Instead, peek out cautiously, survey the sky and start planning now to protect the vulnerable, who will be the first to get wet.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey moved the football again

Josh Moon

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I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt. 

The disappointment and surprise when Lucy moved that football one more time. The betrayal. The embarrassment. The anger. 

I know those feelings, because far too often I’ve experienced them with Alabama politicians. I want so badly to believe that our elected lawmakers are good and smart people who care about the citizens of the state. That they’re not money-grubbing, selfish dolts who will sell us all out for a nickel and new socks. That they will lean on science and facts when crafting policy and ignore the noise from the ignorant minority screaming the loudest. 

And so, far too often, I believe in someone who I know, deep down, is just going to let me down. Who’s going to move that football at the last minute. 

On Thursday, it was Gov. Kay Ivey moving the football. 

It seems like only last month that I was writing a column praising Ivey for her sound judgment and decision-making. That’s because it was last month when Ivey ignored the screaming crazies calling for a “reopening” of Alabama in the midst of a global pandemic that is, quite clearly, getting worse in this state. 

Ivey listened to real doctors. She leaned on facts. She had a cute comeback — “data over dates” — to shoot down any notion that a calendar day would carry more weight than the data showing infection and hospitalization rates. 

We had a governor making sound decisions rooted in public safety and health. She refused to budge on the matter and refused to let money outweigh the value of human life. 

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It was a great time to be alive in Alabama. 

And then, Kay Ivey moved the football. 

A week ago, after telling people that it would be data that determined when Alabama reopens, and that she would follow the White House guidelines for reopening, she did neither. Instead, she did exactly what she said she wouldn’t do — used a date to determine that it was time to lift restrictions. 

The lockdown had gone on too long, Ivey said, and it was time to lift it. 

She did so as positive cases were on the rise. And with absolutely no plan for comprehensive testing and tracing — the one thing that Ivey and all medical experts said we HAD to have before we could safely lift restrictions. 

Then, on Thursday, Ivey was back again to lift more restrictions — the day after the mayor of Montgomery told the world that his town and the surrounding three counties are out of ICU beds because of a massive outbreak of new cases. Hospitals in Montgomery are now transporting ICU patients to Birmingham. 

Still, there went Ivey, lifting restrictions to allow strip clubs and concert venues and casinos to reopen. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush — a coincidence, no doubt. 

The reason for all of this is easy to understand. 

There is no plan to save people. 

The testing and tracing we were supposed to have — that would have allowed us to more safely reopen and go about our lives while the carriers of the virus and those exposed to those people are sequestered — have never materialized. And it is painfully obvious at this point that we will never have it. 

In addition, there is no true guidance from the White House, and what little has come from there, we’ve mostly ignored. We’re supposed to have at least seven straight days of reduced positive cases. We don’t have one day. 

There’s also the Idiot Factor — the groups of crazy people screaming about tyranny and government overreach because they have to put on a mask to shop at Publix. These are the same people who think strapping a bulletproof backpack on their kids to go to school instead of expanding background checks is simply the price of freedom. 

Add it all up, and it’s pretty easy to see what Ivey did: Tossed up her hands and said to hell with it, y’all be careful out there. 

And that’s disappointing. Because I believe the majority of Alabamians — and there are polls to back this up — were grateful for her measured approach and data-driven decisions. And I think most understand that there are ways to both reopen the economy and still keep in place restrictions that both limit the spread of the virus and impress upon people the danger it still poses. 

But we’re not doing that. Not anymore. 

Instead, we’re back to taking the easy way, back to catering to big business and rightwing crazies, back to ignoring science and data. 

The football was moved again.

 

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Opinion | Cleaner air during pandemic shows need for alternative fuels, electric vehicles

Mark Bentley and Phillip Wiedmeyer

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Photos of a smogless Los Angeles skyline set against a brilliant blue sky have emerged as an iconic image to showcase the impact of decreased air pollution during America’s COVID-19 quarantine.

Similar photos from around the world, including what are usually smog-filled cities in India, China and Europe, provide a glimpse of a world with improved air quality.

It’s no secret that poor air quality has historically been caused by traffic, but due to tighter regulations by the federal government, industries’ contribution to pollution has decreased significantly. Scientific research is beginning to show how social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have created an unintended consequence of improving worldwide air quality.

For nearly two decades, the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition has been advocating to improve Alabama’s air quality by increasing the use of cleaner alternative fuels and expanding the market for advanced technology vehicles. Cleaner burning alternative transportation fuel options like biodiesel, ethanol, propane and natural gas also reduce pollution just like electric vehicles.

Air pollution remains a global public health crisis, as the World Health Organization estimates it kills seven million people worldwide annually.

But is the COVID-19 pandemic showing us the wisdom of transitioning to cleaner vehicles, whether electric vehicles with drastically lower emissions or vehicles using cleaner-burning alternative fuels? The answer is an emphatic yes.

Recent research shows global carbon dioxide emission had fallen by 17 percent by early April when compared to mean 2019 levels. In some areas, including the United States and the United Kingdom, emissions have fallen by a third, thanks largely to people driving less, according to research published in Nature Climate Change.

Numerous organizations, including NASA, continue to study the environmental, societal and economic impacts of the pandemic, and researchers view recent air quality gains as promising evidence that the use of alternative vehicles could have long-term positive impacts.

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“If I could wave my magic wand and we all had electric cars tomorrow, I think this is what the air would look like,” Ronald Cohen, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley who studies the effects of the stay-at-home orders on air quality, told the Los Angeles Times.

Wider use of electric vehicles and the other domestically produced alternative fuels would lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil while also helping our environment. Poor air quality already causes negative consequences for millions of Americans.

Alabama could also see economic benefits from increased production of electric vehicles, with Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz operating plants in the state and working hard to produce the next wave of electric vehicles. As part of a $1 billion investment in Alabama, Mercedes began construction of a high-voltage battery plant in Bibb County in 2018 for its all-electric EQ brand of vehicles, as well as batteries for its hybrid plug-ins.

“This is a teaching moment,” Viney Aneja, an air quality professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University told the Raleigh News and Observer. “We should learn from it. We should promote behavior that will allow air quality to be as good as it is outside right now.”

This is a prime opportunity for America to embrace alternative and cleaner-burning transportation fuels, as well as electric vehicles, while also decreasing reliance on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home.

It could also make those picturesque photos of the big-city skylines become commonplace instead of a rarity.

Mark Bentley has served as the executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition since August 2006.

Phillip Wiedmeyer serves as the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition’s chairman of the board of directors and president and is one of the ACFC’s original founders. He also serves as the executive director of the Applied Research Center of Alabama, a non-profit dedicated to public policy issues impacting Alabama’s growth, economic development and business climate.

About the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition

Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition serves as the principal coordinating point for clean, alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle activities in Alabama. ACFC was incorporated in 2002 as an Alabama 501c3 non-profit, received designation U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program in 2009 and was re-designated in 2014. A national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging transportation technologies. To learn more, visit www.alabamacleanfuels.com.

 

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Featured Columnists

Opinion | With reckless abandon

Joey Kennedy

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This is Thursday. Since Sunday, we’ve had more than 1,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Alabama. Let that number sink in. Some of those 1,000-plus new cases will end in death or permanent damage. Our caseloads are going up. They’re not on a plateau. They are increasing, by more than 1,000 in four days.

Open up!

As I travel to the undisclosed location on UAB’s campus where I work on my upcoming classes, write recommendation letters, and prepare for school in the fall, I’m seeing more and more people on the streets. I don’t think I have ever seen as many people out walking their dogs or just walking, period. When I visit my corner convenience store to buy a bottle of wine or an emergency bag of dog food, I don my mask and disposable gloves. Yet, even though the store’s owners are responsible, requiring social distancing and masks, about half the people I see in the store don’t wear masks. I get in and out quickly, throw my gloves in the garbage can outside and sanitize my hands and car surfaces.

As I was driving around working on this story, fewer than half the people I see on the street or entering big-box stores like Wal-Mart or grocery stores, are bothering to wear masks.

Is it simply cabin fever leading desperate people out onto the streets without protective gear during a world pandemic? Have we just decided that more deaths are worth it to restart the economy? We’re getting close to 100,000 people killed since February across the country.

The feeble response to the pandemic in Washington, D.C., has caused many unnecessary deaths. This is the legacy of the Trump administration: A wrecked economy, and, before it’s over, hundreds of thousands of wrecked families.

I remember Ronald Reagan speaking to the nation after the Challenger explosion, Bill Clinton’s response after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, George W. Bush’s empathy after 9/11, Barack Obama’s grief after mass shootings at Sandy Hook in Connecticut and at a church in Charleston, S.C.

Donald Trump lacks any empathy whatsoever. Mostly, he tries to redirect blame to anybody but his administration. Truman’s “the buck stops here” has no place in the Trump White House. Maybe “nothing stops here” would be more suited. Trump is so petty that even during a deadly pandemic, he refuses to schedule the long tradition of unveiling his predecessor’s White House portrait. (Nothing gets under Trump’s orange skin more than a black-skinned man who is far more popular with people in this country than Trump will ever be.)

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Parts of all 50 states are reopening; at one point, it seemed Gov. Kay Ivey was taking it slow, but apparently no longer. People are gathering right here in Birmingham and in Alabama, violating social distancing and mask requirements because apparently they don’t care.

In too many ways, it appears Trump’s pathological narcissism is a novel coronavirus, too, infecting many Americans with anger, hate, and reckless abandon. They swallowed the bleach, so to speak.

That, too, will be this awful man’s legacy.

Make America great again? What a joke. It’ll take a Democrat to do that. Again.


Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner,
writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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