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Opinion | When should Alabama’s economy reopen?

Chris Christie

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When should Alabama reopen its economy after the COVID-19 shutdown? President Trump has said the decision is for Governors to make, even if he disagrees with his or her decision. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has said she plans to announce a decision this week, possibly April 28.

White House Guidelines for “Opening Up America Again”

On April 17, 2020, Governor Ivey issued a statement indicating that Alabama would follow the White House Guidelines for “Opening Up America Again” and plans to base her decision on data, as the Guidelines recommend. Using the White House Guidelines, what does the Alabama data tell us about when Alabama should begin to reopen its economy.?

While the White House’s other COVID-19 responses have been criticized, the White House Guidelines have generally received positive reactions. And to be clear, as this blog post I wrote explains, the Guidelines recommend a thoughtful phased lifting of restrictions based on data, not a sudden return to normal based on politics.

Gating criteria: The White House Guidelines recommend that states reopen in three phases using “Proposed State or Regional Gating Criteria.” The gating criteria are to be met before a state begins each phase. The gating criteria are (1) a state’s hospitals treat all patients without crisis care, (2) a state’s COVID-19 symptoms and cases for a 14-day period have a downward trajectory and (3) a state have a robust testing program, including emerging antibody testing, in place for at-risk healthcare workers.

First gating criterion – Hospitals treat all patients 

Whether Alabama can treat all patients without crisis care could have been the most important gating criteria, but fortunately appears not to be an issue. If Alabama hospitals had been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, or close to being overwhelmed, the Alabama data on COVID-19 patients in the hospital, in Intensive Care Units (ICUs), and on ventilators would be important data to analyze for this criterion. Largely due to the shutdown, though, no information suggests that Alabama hospitals have been overwhelmed or close to being overwhelmed. The hospital numbers and deaths make clear that this pandemic has had tragic impacts on many Alabama families, but our leadership took precautions and has kept us from disaster.

Second gating criterion – Downward trajectory

For a state’s COVID-19 data, what might be a “downward trajectory” is unclear and will be unclear. As well as what COVID-19 data to use, the issues include what is downward. Does downward mean a consistent downward trend for 14 days? Or does downward also include a decline then reaching a plateau. And what if one day is almost zero and then the next day spikes up? For comparison, Alabama data reflects 0 new reported hospitalizations on April 20 and then twice the number of typical hospitalizations on April 21.

As some readily available historical graphs for different nations’ new COVID-19 cases show, even using 5-day rolling averages to adjust for data reporting anomalies, the numbers for new cases may start going down and then go back up. In addition, the overall pattern for deaths in Spain and Italy suggests to expect a peak, some decline, and then reaching a plateau, not a bell curve that goes up and then symmetrically comes down.

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Current COVID-19 cases data: The Guidelines refer to COVID-19 cases, not new cases. According to a World Health Organization report, “the median time from onset to clinical recovery for mild cases is approximately 2 weeks and is 3-6 weeks for patients with severe or critical disease.” Little Alabama information is available about current COVID-19 cases, because little information is available as to when people recover.

New COVID-19 cases data: Based on the lack of COVID-19 data on current cases, decisions can be based on data for new cases. Because hospitals’ being overwhelmed is not a concern now, new COVID-19 cases data can work about as well. To adjust for possible reporting anomalies, one should also look at 5-day rolling new case averages.

As data made easily accessible by the Alabama Political Reporter reflect, the numbers of new Alabama reported COVID-19 cases has gone up a lot and then gone up and down. Recently, the numbers of new cases/day seemed to hit a plateau with a slight increase for April 16-20 (163, 168, 151, 180, 175 new cases), but then spiked up April 21-22 (249, 283 new cases), and started declining again April 23-25 (222, 194, 187 new cases), with a slight increase yesterday, April 26 (205 new cases).

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Using rolling 5-day new case averages, the data is similar with a simpler pattern. The 5-day new cases averages declined from April 15-20 (247, 228, 198, 184, 190, 167 new cases averages), increased from April 21-25 (185, 208, 222, 225, 227 new cases averages), and may have begun to decline slightly again April 26 (218 new cases average).

New cases downward trajectory: Using the numbers in the paragraphs above, the Alabama new cases started a downward trajectory April 23 with a slight one day increase yesterday, April 26. If that downward trend continues and makes the April 26 increase an anomaly, 14 days from April 23 is May 6. Another approach uses the rolling 5-day new case averages. The Alabama rolling 5-day new case averages may have started to decline April 26, but looks more like it reached a plateau. If that slight decline is the start of a downward trend, 14 days from April 26 is May 9.

Look out for a rebound: To move from phase one to phase two after 14 days and from phase two to phase three after 14 days, the White House Guidelines recommend that a state not have a COVID-19 “rebound.” A rebound would be an increase in COVID-19 cases due to beginning to remove restrictions. Similar to a downward trajectory, identifying when COVID-19 cases for a 14-day period have had a rebound might be difficult. Does a rebound include reaching a plateau, or does it only mean an increase? And is 14 days long enough to make a judgment about a rebound? Individuals and employers may delay following the lifting of restrictions, and the COVID-19 incubation period can be 14 days. If rebounds are to occur, a state might already be in Phase Three, thus compounding problems.

Other estimate as to when Alabama should reopen its economy: University of Washington epidemiologists set up a model projecting the future course of the coronavirus outbreak and translated those projections into suggested time frames for loosening strict shelter-at-home orders across the country. Assuming “strategies that include testing, contact tracing, isolation, and limiting gathering size,” their Alabama projection as of April 22, 2020, was to begin relaxing restrictions on May 19, 2020.

Third gating criterion – Robust testing program

At this time, no state, including Alabama, has a robust COVID-19 testing program. While the White House has said testing is already sufficient, both White House physicians, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, have in the past few days made clear that testing availability is not there yet but might be in weeks.

Robust testing: South Korea has had a robust testing program. It has had relative success avoiding as many COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, largely due to its testing program and subsequent follow up after testing. South Korea tested each day about 8,000 people per million people. For Alabama, that proportionally would be about 40,000 tests/day and could be part of a robust testing program like in South Korea.

Minimum needed testing: How much testing is needed? The Rockefeller Foundation has estimated that the United States needs initially 3,000,000 tests per week and should build up to 30,000,000 tests per week. The Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed studies on what testing capacity is needed and arrived at similar estimates. Using the Rockefeller Foundation’s estimates, proportionally for Alabama, that would be about 45,000 tests per week building up to about 450,000 tests per week.

Alabama testing: As reflected in the Alabama COVID-19 data reported by the Alabama Political Reporter, Alabama has been increasing testing and had about 6,000 tests/day the past several days. That would be 42,000 tests/week. So, with an expected increase in testing in the weeks ahead, Alabama would have above the recommended minimum number of tests, but not close to robust testing.

Antibody testing: Finally, reliable approved antibody testing is not readily available. Both the CDC and the FDA are working on having available approved tests for antibodies. When that will happen is uncertain.

Conclusion

The Alabama data tells us that Alabama’s reopening its economy, using the White House’s gating criteria, in the first half of May depends on an uncertain decline in the numbers of new cases per day for the next week or two. If the numbers of new cases trends down with the slight April 26 increase just an anomaly, Alabama could begin to remove some restrictions on May 6 or May 9, assuming the testing inadequacies are resolved or overlooked.

Whether and when to begin with the White House Guidelines’ phase one to begin reopening the economy depends on (1) what happens in the next days and (2) based on the lack of robust testing and other uncertainties, might depend on one’s judgments about the risks to Alabama families’ health and lives when reopening the Alabama economy.

 

Chris Christie is a guest columnist who regularly writes for the Alabama Political Reporter.

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Alabama Farmer’s Federation starts a relief fund for farmers impacted by Sally

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Hurricane Sally. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

The Alabama Farmers Federation said Monday that it has established a relief fund to help farmers from across the state whose farms were damaged by Hurricane Sally.

“When disaster strikes, I am always impressed by the people of Alabama and their giving spirits,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “As we started receiving photos of damaged crops, barns and equipment, we also started getting questions from people about what they could do to help our farmers, and that’s why we’ve established this fund.”

All the donations to the relief fund are tax-deductible and may be made online or by check payable to Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation at P.O. Box 11000, Montgomery, AL 36191. Please include “hurricane relief fund” in the check memo line.

“Most of our farmers had as good a crop as we’ve ever seen, and it was so close to harvest for cotton, soybeans, peanuts and pecans,” Parnell said. “It’s devastating to lose a crop that had so much promise. Our farmers are great people who are assisting each other with cleaning up the damage, and we’re so grateful to everyone across the state who is helping in some way, like donating to the relief fund.”

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores as a category two storm Sept. 16 with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Official reports from the National Weather Service show more than 20 inches of rain in Baldwin County.

The combination of heavy rains and high winds damaged crops, structures and equipment from Mobile and Baldwin Counties in the southwest through Russell County in the east.

It has been a difficult few years for farmers.

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While the general economy had been doing well prior to the coronavirus global pandemic, the farmers were caught in the middle of an international trade dispute over tariffs and fair competition.

Chinese retaliation against Americans farm products depressed commodity markets from 2018 through early this year.

When it appeared that the U.S. and China had come to a trade accord in January, the coronavirus hit along with massive disruptions in the supply chain.

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Farm bankruptcies were already up pre-COVID-19. The loss of the 2020 crop could push some already struggling agribusinesses over the brink.

The Alabama Farmers Federation is Alabama’s largest and most influential farmers’ organization.

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Economy

Applications open for Alabama’s CARES Act Marine Industry Relief Program

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division announced this week that it is currently accepting applications for its CARES Act relief program for fishery-related businesses.

The program was established to provide financial relief for losses suffered by the state’s marine fishing industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information about the program, visit this website.

Congress awarded $3.2 million of CARES Act money to the state of Alabama to address financial losses caused by the pandemic that occurred in the state’s seafood industry between March 1 and May 31, 2020.

To qualify, fishery-related businesses must have experienced revenue losses greater than 35 percent between the dates listed above. The 35 percent revenue loss is compared to the average revenue earned between March 1 and May 31 in the preceding five years of 2015-2019.

Only Alabama residents and tribal members that are licensed as saltwater commercial fishermen — those that possess licenses for fishing, taking/catching of oysters, taking/carrying shrimp, gill net fishing, and “crab catching” — seafood or oyster aquaculture operators, non-retail seafood dealers or processors, live-bait dealers and for-hire vessel owners-operators are eligible to participate in the program.

Qualifying individuals and businesses must be able to substantiate their income reduction and complete the application process to be eligible for loss reimbursement. Alabama residents who participate in eligible fisheries in other states as non-resident licensees may also be eligible to participate in Alabama’s program.

Completed applications and supporting documentation can be mailed, shipped or hand delivered to the MRD office in Gulf Shores, Alabama, located at 999 Commerce Drive.

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The applications must be postmarked no later than Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Completed applications can also be hand-delivered by 5 p.m. that day. Electronic copies including email will not be accepted. For more information about the program, including FAQs and the application form, visit outdooralabama.com/CARES-ACT.

Learn more about the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by visiting outdooralabama.com.

The coronavirus crisis and the economic shutdowns and business limitations to combat the spread of the coronavirus has been devastating to the American economy. At least 28 million Americans are still receiving unemployment benefits and the S&P 500 index closed on Wednesday at 3,236.9, which is still down 4.4 percent from its February peak of 3,386.

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At least 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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Registered nurses, retail salespersons were most sought after employees in August

Staff

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Data collected and analyzed by the Alabama Department of Labor’s Labor Market Information Division shows that the five occupations with the most online wanted ads continue to be for registered nurses, retail salespersons, truck drivers, sales representatives and customer service representatives — with more than 8,000 ads placed for those occupations in August.

The HWOL data is compiled from all online job postings in the state, including those posted on the state’s free online jobs database, AlabamaWorks, and other sources such as traditional job boards, corporate boards and social media sites.

Twelve percent of job ads have salaries of $75,000 and above. Fifteen percent have salaries in the $50,000 to $75,000 range. Eighteen percent have salaries in the $35,000 to $49,000 range, and 55 percent have salaries of $35,000 or less.

The top three employers posting ads in August were UAB Medicine with 992 postings, Lowe’s with 770 and the University of Alabama at Birmingham with 502.

These were followed by the University of South Alabama with 404, Diversicare Healthcare & Therapy Services with 331, Huntsville Hospital with 295, Encompass Home Health with 270, Baptist Health with 246, Advance Auto Parts with 240 and Grandview Medical Center with 236 to round out the top 10 employers with the most online ads.

Software developers are the focus of this month’s in-depth analysis by the LMI division. The median annual salary is advertised as $87,802. This occupation develops, creates and modifies general computer applications software or specialized utility programs.

Software developers also analyze user needs and develop software solutions. They may design software or customize software for client use with the aim of optimizing operational efficiency, analyze and design databases within an application area, and working individually or coordinating database development as part of a team.

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Specialized skills in Java and DevOps offer salary premiums based on job ads analyzed.

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Alabama unemployment rate drops more than 2 points to 5.6 percent

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 5.6 percent in August, down from 7.9 percent in July, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

The figure represents 127,186 unemployed people, compared to 176,556 in July. It compares to an August 2019 rate of 2.8 percent, or 62,149 unemployed people.

“August showed a larger drop in the unemployment rate than we’ve seen for a few months,” said Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington. “We are continuing to see our initial claims drop, staying under 10,000 for the past several weeks. We regained another 22,200 jobs this month but are still down more than 86,000 from this time last year.”

Washington said that the number of people who are working or actively looking for work is at its highest level ever, which he described as a sign that people are confident that there are jobs to be found. 

Gov. Kay Ivey said the numbers are good news for Alabama. 

“We have worked extremely hard to open Alabama’s businesses safely, and to put our hard-working families back to work,” Ivey said in a statement. “We know that challenges remain, and we will endeavor to meet them so that we can get back to our previous, pre-pandemic record-setting employment numbers.”

All the state’s counties and metro areas experienced a decrease in unemployment rates from July to August. The most gains were seen in the government sector, the professional and business services sector and the trade, transportation and utilities sector.

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Counties with the lowest unemployment rates were:

  • Clay County – 3.4 percent
  • Randolph, Franklin, Marshall, Cullman, Cleburne and Cherokee Counties – 3.6 percent
  • Blount County – 3.7 percent

Counties with the highest unemployment rates were:

  • Wilcox County – 14.8 percent
  • Lowndes County – 13.8 percent
  • Greene County – 10.9 percent

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are:

  • Vestavia Hills – 3 percent
  • Homewood  – 3.2 percent
  • Madison – 3.3 percent

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are:

  • Prichard – 15.4 percent
  • Selma – 12.9 percent
  • Bessemer – 10.7 percent

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