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Sen. Vivian Figures urges Alabama Senate leadership not to continue with session

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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Sen. Vivian Figures, a leading Democrat in the Alabama State Senate, is urging the Senate’s leadership not to resume the 2020 Legislative Session on May 4 as planned because of concerns over the health and safety of the senators and their staffs.

Figures represents a district in Mobile County, where the number of COVID-19 cases has surged in recent weeks to overtake Jefferson County to have the most cases in the state, despite the fact that fewer people have been tested in Mobile and the county has a smaller population than Jefferson County.

“There are still too many unknowns regarding COVID-19,” Figures said in a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, Friday. “Please do not put our lives at risk when it is so not necessary. I am begging you and the rest of leadership to please not call us back on May 4, 2020.”

Figures said the Senate should return briefly on April 28, as previously planned, and then sine die and end the 2020 legislative session completely.

“The vast majority of the Alabama Legislature is either 60+ years old, and/or have underlying health issues,” Figures wrote in her letter. “Many of our members as well as the staff, have small children at home and/or elderly family members for whom they are responsible. Why would you put all of those lives at risk for something that can wait?”

Marsh and Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said that protecting the health of legislators and staff members is their top concern, and leadership is working closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health to ensure that the State House’s spaces safely accommodate the legislators.

Figures, though, said the Legislature can return in September in a special session to do its constitutionally mandated task of passing the state’s two budgets before the new fiscal year begins.

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“The budgets could be passed in September when we will have a more realistic view of revenues coming in as well as consumer behavior,” Figures said. “The Alabama Legislature has passed budgets in September many times before because of revenue questions.”

Figures said many members of the Legislature do not “feel safe staying in a hotel at this time.” And that “there is no way for us to socially distance ourselves in the chamber, especially in a building that is already unhealthy.”

Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said Thursday that the Legislature will resume meetings on May 4, and will likely continue meeting until May 18, the constitutionally mandated adjournment date of the session.

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“It is imperative that we continue to meet and finish out the session as we move to reopen Alabama. The people elected us to lead and send us to Montgomery to pass budgets and keep the state moving forward,” Marsh said.

The Legislature’s leadership has said that members who do not feel safe returning to the State House can stay home, but Figures said legislators should not feel they have to choose between fulfilling their responsibilities as legislators and their health.

“We were all elected from our respective districts to be a voice for the citizens we serve,” Figures wrote. “Just to tell us to stay home if we don’t feel comfortable coming to session during a global pandemic is unconscionable.”

McCutcheon said Thursday that “our goal for the remainder of the session is to conduct the people’s business that is required by the Constitution and position Alabama to repair the economic damage that has been done by the unavoidable public health quarantine.”

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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Gov. Kay Ivey awards $100 million to state nursing homes, hospitals in fight against coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey held an Coronavirus update Press conference Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced the award of $100 million in coronavirus relief funds for grants to state nursing homes and hospitals to aid in the fight against COVID-19. 

“While there are many aspects of COVID-19 that we still don’t know, one thing that isn’t in dispute is our seniors and those with preexisting health conditions fair the worst when contracting the virus,” Ivey said in a statement. “Protecting our most vulnerable citizens remains a priority for my administration, and it is incumbent to ensure that our nursing homes and hospitals have every tool possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as well as keep their staff and health care professionals safe as they offer exceptional care to those who are ill.”

One of the two grant programs will provide up to $50 million to be used by Alabama nursing homes for personal protective equipment, cleaning, personnel costs and “other costs incurred related to the pandemic,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. 

The Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation will administer the funds, according to Ivey’s office. The non-profit previously received $18.27 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to pay for testing and proactive surveillance of COVID-19 for health care workers and nursing home residents. 

“On behalf of Alabama’s nursing homes, I thank Governor Ivey for her continued commitment to assisting the residents and staff in our facilities,” said Brandon Farmer, president of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, in a statement. “Our nursing homes continue to provide high quality, compassionate care despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. These funds will help cover the unexpected and ongoing costs we incur during this pandemic and allow us to focus on caring for those most vulnerable to this virus.”

The Alabama Hospital Association will administer up to $50 million through the other grant program to state hospitals, according to the release. 

“Despite unprecedented challenges and financial strains as a result of the pandemic, Alabama’s hospitals have continued to rise to the occasion in meeting the health care needs of our citizens,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, in a statement. “Our hospitals thank Governor Ivey and her administration for the continued support and financial assistance. This will go a long way to ensure hospitals are able to care for all patients who need hospital services and protect their employees while doing so.”  

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The two grant programs were funded from the approximately $1.9 billion the state received through the CARES Act. Up to $250 million of that money has been earmarked for the delivery of health care in the state’s battle with coronavirus.

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Judge dismisses lawsuit asking court to loosen voting restrictions amid COVID-19 pandemic

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Montgomery Circuit Court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit against Gov. Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill and several Montgomery County election officials that asked the court to expand Alabama’s absentee voting and relax other voting measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Montgomery Circuit Judge J.R. Gains in his order dismissing the suit wrote that the court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the plaintiff’s complaint because “Plaintiffs present a non-justiciable political question, Plaintiffs lack standing to sue Defendants, and the claims against Defendants are barred by sovereign immunity.” 

The League of Women Voters’ lawsuit asked Gains to order Ivey and Merrill to exercise emergency powers to waive the notary or witness requirement, the requirement to supply a copy of a photo ID and to extend no-excuse absentee voting into the fall. 

“COVID 19 is a very real threat, not only to voters’ physical health but also to the health of Alabama’s electoral process.  We are profoundly disappointed by the judge’s decision, which allows elections to proceed in their current state,” said League President Barbara Caddell in a statement Friday. 

“The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization whose mission is to empower voters and defend democracy. This case was filed to do just that. It was filed in the Alabama court system based on the Alabama Constitution and the Alabama Emergency Management Act which protect the right to vote in times of ‘tumult’ and give the Governor and the Secretary of State emergency power to protect citizens during emergencies. This pandemic certainly qualifies as ‘tumult’ requiring additional emergency assistance,” Caddell continued.

Caddell said that since the judge ruled he didn’t have the authority to require Ivey and Merrill to use their emergency powers, the league is appealing to Ivey for help, and detailed eight requests:

  • Suspend the requirement that a copy of the voter’s photo ID be included with the voter’s application for an absentee ballot
  • Suspend the requirement that the absentee ballot be notarized or signed by two witnesses;
  •  Provide adequate personal protective equipment for clerks and poll workers and disinfecting polling equipment;
  • Require in-person voters to wear masks and maintain social distancing;
  • Authorize local election officials to provide early voting at least fourteen days before each election day;
  • Authorize local election officials to provide drive-through or curbside voting where practicable, to establish vote centers and relax restrictions on wrong-precinct voting;
  • Provide local election officials the financial resources to implement these emergency measures; and
  • Adequately notify all Alabama voters of these emergency measures.  This includes either notifying voters that no box need be checked to vote absentee or modifying the absentee application and ballot forms to inform voters explicitly which boxes to check.

“In the past, Governor Ivey has demonstrated her concern for Alabamians in a variety of ways, and we encourage her to address our concerns for election safety by using her emergency power to order such common-sense voter protections,” the league said in their statement.

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Alabama coronavirus cases more than doubled in the last 30 days

The state has averaged 1,605 cases per day in the last 30 days. Thursday’s increase of 1,626 exceeded that average.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported an additional 1,626 coronavirus cases on Thursday after several days when new cases increased by less than 1,000 per day.

Through July 7, at least 45,263 Alabamians had contracted the coronavirus, but in the 30 days since, 48,139 more Alabamians have tested positive for the virus and more deaths have followed. The state has averaged 1,605 cases per day in the last 30 days. Thursday’s increase of 1,626 exceeded that average.

The state now has 93,402 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and that number is sure to rise as schools begin to reopen next week and children and teachers begin intermingling for the first time in 117 days.

Through July 7, at least 1,007 Alabamians died from COVID-19. In the last 30 days, another 647 Alabamians have died. That is an average of nearly 22 deaths per day. The Department of Public Health confirmed an additional 15 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday. The state’s death toll now stands at 1,654.

As of Wednesday, at least 1,575 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals statewide. Many hospitals have recently been or are currently near ICU bed capacity. Making matters worse for health care workers, 5,575 Alabama health care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

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At least 1,576 of those health care worker cases have come in just the last 30 days.

By Thursday, the state reported 736,594 tests, and 93,402 have been positive. That is nearly a 12.7 percent rate of positive tests since March. Public health officials say anything over 5 percent is bad and an indicator that there are many more people out there with the coronavirus that are not being detected.

In the last two weeks, though, at least 17.5 percent of tests have come back positive, based on 14-day averages of daily case and test increases. In the last week, that positivity rate has been nearly 17 percent.

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At least 37,923 Alabamians are presumed to have recovered.

Some states, including New York, are asking that visitors from Alabama quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival. GOP Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville was recently criticized in The Washington Post for defying Washington D.C.’s 14-day quarantine request for visitors from Alabama.

Not all of the news is bad. The seven and 14-day averages of daily case increases in the state have both been dropping since peaking around July 25. The cases, while dropping, are still well above what they were prior to July 13, and the positivity rate remains high.

The state remains under a “safer-at-home” order through the end of August, issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. If you do not have to leave your home, then do not leave your home. You are safer there.

If you are going to be around other people not in your household, you are required to wear a mask or cloth face covering. This includes school children returning to classes this month.

Remember to always socially distance. Stay six feet away from other people as much as possible. Don’t shake hands or hug people not actually living in your household.

If someone in your household is sick, isolate them from the rest of the family. If you or someone in your family have any sort of symptoms, get tested for the coronavirus. Remember to wash your hands frequently.

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Alabama nursing homes can’t use rapid COVID-19 test machines without federal guidance

In Alabama, there were 686 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities as of Wednesday, which was 42 percent of the state’s 1,639 COVID-19 deaths at that point.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Some Alabama nursing homes have received rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test machines, but without guidance from the federal agency that sent them, the machines aren’t being used.

It’s been three weeks since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in a nationwide conference call with nursing home administrators announced plans to disburse the machines, which can provide results in 15 minutes.

John Matson, director of communications for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told the Alabama Political Reporter on Wednesday that CMS has said it will send the rapid testing machines to 78 Alabama nursing homes to start, and eventually will supply one to each nursing home in the state. He said some of those 78 facilities have received them while some are still waiting for delivery.

“The biggest thing we’re waiting on from CMS is guidance on when and how it wants us to use these machines,” Matson said.

Matson said that CMS officials on the July 16 conference call said that regulations and guidance on the testing machines weren’t yet ready, but that the agency wanted to go ahead and disburse the machines.

“They wanted to distribute machines and then let the guidance and the regulations catch up,” Matson said.

The Trump administration touted the rapid tests machines’ ability to bolster testing in nursing homes, which care for older, sick people who are at most risk of serious complications and death due to coronavirus.

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As of July 30, 43 states reported 62,925 COVID-19 deaths, which was 44 percent of all coronavirus deaths in those states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Alabama, there were 686 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities as of Wednesday, which was 42 percent of the state’s 1,639 COVID-19 deaths at that point.

While nursing home administrators await those federal guidelines to be able to use the rapid test machines, it’s taking longer to get COVID-19 test results from many labs. Matson said some nursing homes are seeing wait times for results as long as a week, which public health experts say makes the results nearly worthless.

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“Not every nursing home is experiencing that, but we do know that some are experiencing a longer turnaround time,” Matson said.  “As we’ve said before, knowledge is key, and when we run those tests we need those tests results back in a timely manner so we know how to properly treat our patients and our employees.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health on July 31 said that as Alabama continues to see an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, it’s taking commercial labs and ADPH’s lab an average of seven days to get results.

ADPH in the release states that the lengthier turnaround time for test results is due to several factors, including supply chain problems with test reagents, more demand for coronavirus tests nationwide, “and in some cases, increased numbers of unnecessary tests.”

“I think it’s important to emphasize that that is essentially a worthless result,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious disease at UAB, during a press briefing July 30. “At that point, all it tells you is that six days ago you were negative.”

And there are problems with the rapid testing machine’s accuracy. CMS has said the machines have an error rate of between 15 and 20 percent, and that a negative test result on the machines shouldn’t be used to rule out a possible case.

“Negative results should generally be treated as presumptive, do not rule out SARS-CoV-2 infection and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions, including infection control decisions,” CMS said in a FAQ on the rapid test machines for nursing homes.

Matson said CMS told nursing homes that while a negative test result should be followed up with a subsequent lab test to be certain, a positive result on the rapid test machines very likely means the person has coronavirus.

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