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Governor: Alabama will lift parts of “stay-at-home” order Thursday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced all retail businesses can reopen at 50 percent capacity at 5 p.m. on Thursday, but close-contact businesses will remain closed for now as the state continues to work to keep Alabamians safe from COVID-19.

In addition to easing restrictions on retail businesses, Ivey said during a press conference Tuesday that beginning Thursday at 5 p.m. state beaches will reopen but gatherings are limited to 10 people or less and people must maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another. 

Restaurants, bars and breweries will remain closed to dine-in service. Only take-out and delivery will be permitted. Other closures — including barbershops, entertainment venues, athletic facilities, senior citizen centers, child care facilities and in-person instruction at schools — will remain in place under the new “safer-at-home” order.

The new “safer-at-home” order will remain in place until at least May 15, when the situation may be re-evaluated. State Health Officer Scott Harris told APR Monday that if the situation worsens, the state may “dial back” easing of restrictions. If the situation continues to improve, Alabama will continue to ease restrictions.

The “stay-at-home” order will expire April 30 at 5 p.m., and will be replaced by a “safer-at-home” order highlighted under the yellow portion of this graphic. (Via Alabama Department of Public Health)

Medical procedures will be allowed “unless prohibited in the future by the State Health Officer to preserve resources necessary to diagnose and treat COVID-19,” according to a release by Ivey’s office Tuesday.  Providers must follow COVID-19-related rules and guidance from state regulatory boards or public health authorities, the release states.  

“Let me be abundantly clear,” Ivey said Tuesday. “The threat of COVID-19 is not over. We’re still seeing the virus spread and all our people are susceptible to the infection.” 

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Ivey said the greatest disservice for the people who might be watching her speak “is to think that by lifting the comprehensive health restrictions this must be a sign that there’s no longer a threat of COVID-19.” 

 “Folks. We must continue to be vigilant in our social distancing, both today and for the foreseeable future,” she said. 

Ivey issued her stay-at-home order on April 3, and it was to expire on April 30. As of Tuesday morning, there were 6,580 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama, 241 deaths and a total of 900 hospitalizations caused by the virus, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

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“As of this week we no longer believe our hospitals will see an overwhelming amount of ICU patients who need ventilators as we once believed, and that is sure good news, for sure,” Ivey said Tuesday. “But we have not seen a decrease in the amount of newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients. We have seen stabilization. A leveling off, if you will, in the amount of cases.” 

In-person church services of 10 or more people will continue to be prohibited under her new order. 

“Faith is clearly a part of the people of Alabama and getting back the worship services is essential,” Ivey said. 

Ivey said getting back to allowing church services must be done with “very much concern” and said she reached out to her friend and pastor Jay Wolf at the First Baptist in Montgomery for guidance, who contacted other faith leaders throughout the state. 

Wolf said during the press conference that services must reopen in a way that won’t spread the virus among church congregations and communities, and said Alabama should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reopening church services. 

Wolf said that at this time Alabama “does not meet the criteria proposed” for reopening churches, but that churches are encouraged to continue using online tools to hold services or hold drive-in services. 

“It is not yet safe and wise to gather in person,” Wolf said.

Asked by a reporter about testing, especially in the Black Belt and Wiregrass areas, Harris said the department continues work to increase testing in those areas, and that the problem is “an uneven distribution of tests.” 

Harris told APR Monday that he hopes the state can get to 50,000 tests per week in the near future, but supply shortages, staffing problems and geographical disparities have limited the rollout. Currently, Alabama is testing about 1,000 people a day, he told APR Monday.

“We continue to have some supply chain issues,” Harris said at the press conference Tuesday of testing material shortages. “It’s still a bit of an issue every single day to make sure we have what we need.” 

Speaking of contact tracing, in which state health workers contact those who’ve come into contact with a COVID-19 infected person, Harris said there are between 50 and 60 workers doing that work in Alabama. He noted that Massachusetts recently hired 1,000 workers to conduct contact tracing in that state. 

“We clearly will need to find some additional resources,” Harris said. “Until we have a vaccine or at least an effective treatment, we’ll have to scale it up quite a bit for a while.” 

Asked how social-distancing will be enforced on beaches, Ivey said local officials in the beach areas “have assured us” that they will enforce the rules. 

Over the weekend, APR surveyed 27 public health and infectious disease experts about the future of Alabama’s stay-at-home order. Twenty of the 27 public health and infectious disease experts at UAB, UAB Health, UAH and Auburn who responded to the questionnaire said Alabama needs to keep its stay-at-home order in place until at least May 1, which Ivey has done.

A majority of the experts said the order should stay in some form until at least May 19, and that Alabama has not reached a level of testing or contact-tracing to safely and fully reopen.

As APR reported, it’s unclear whether Alabama met the White House’s “downward trajectory” criteria of COVID-19 cases over a 14 period before the administration recommends states reopen, because the White House didn’t define what “downward trajectory” means. 

“They did not specify that,” State Health Officer Scott Harris told APR on Monday. “They left us all to figure that out on our own. You would think that math wouldn’t be subject to speculation, guesswork, but you know, it has been because of the language they chose to use.”

Public health experts have said there remains a need for more testing and contact tracing in the state before fully reopening the economy. 

Harris told APR Monday that expanding testing would give the capacity to test asymptomatic people in addition to those with symptoms, but currently only about 7,000 a week are being tested, and tests are still prioritized for those with moderate to severe symptoms, those in long-term care facilities and health care workers.

An Alabama Small Business Commission subcommittee on April 17 released a report recommending Ivey immediately open many businesses, and more on May 1, citing record unemployment in the state and businesses and workers struggling to cope during the partial shutdown. 

Republican Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who led that subcommittee, in a statement on Ivey’s decision Tuesday thanks her for her decision to begin reopening parts of Alabama’s economy. 

“I thank Gov. Kay Ivey for beginning to implement the recommendations of our Small Business Commission and for starting the process to ‘Reopen Alabama Responsibly,’” Ainsworth said in the statement. “Thousands of small business owners and employees across the state will feel relief as they open their doors for business once again, but, like all of us, they will need to use strict social distancing guidelines, safety precautions, and simple common sense.” 

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in a statement applauded Ivey’s decision. 

“After consulting with the medical community and business leaders, it appears that we are starting to see a flattening in the curve of COVID-19 cases and that our hospitals will not be overwhelmed by those who contract the disease,” Marsh said. “I applaud Governor Ivey for taking the first steps to reopen Alabama for business. It was the right thing to do and I look forward to continuing to monitor the situation as we work to reopen all businesses in Alabama as soon as possible.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Health

Alabama has fourth highest rate of coronavirus cases

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, trailing only fellow Southern states Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

Alabama has so far recorded at least 29,896 cases per million people, which amounts to 2.9 percent, nearly 3 percent, of the people in Alabama.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday reported that 818 more Alabamians have tested positive for the coronavirus. This takes our state up to 145,780 diagnosed cases. At least 61,232 Alabamians have recovered from the virus.

But 82,109 Alabamians have active coronavirus cases. This is the ninth-highest raw total in the nation, trailing only Florida, California, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Texas — all states with higher populations than Alabama.

Alabama’s high rate of infection is not due to the state doing more testing. ADPH announced 5,500 more tests on Monday, taking the state up to 1,059,517 total tests.

Alabama is 40th in the nation in coronavirus testing.

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Tests as a percentage of the state’s population is just 22.8 percent. Louisiana on the other hand has 47 percent — the fifth highest rate of testing in the nation. Even Mississippi, at 26.4 percent, is testing at a higher rate than Alabama and are 29th in testing. Florida is 37th.

On Monday, ADPH reported two more Alabamians have died from COVID-19, taking the state death toll to 2,439. Alabama is 21st in death rate from COVID-19 at almost .05 percent.

New Jersey has had the highest COVID-19 death rate at .18 percent of the population. At least 257 Alabamians have died in September, though, to this point, September deaths are trailing both August and July deaths. At least 602 Alabamians died from COVID-19 in August.

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Hospitalizations from COVID-19 are also down. 780 Alabamians were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, down to levels not seen since before the July 4 holiday. At least 1,613 Alabamians were in the hospital suffering from COVID-19 on Aug. 6.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s July 15 mask order is being credited with decreasing the number of coronavirus cases in the state, which had soared to a seven-day average of 1,921 cases per day on July 19. The current seven-day average is 780 cases per day but is little changed in the last ten days.

The mask order expires next month, but most observers expect the mask order to be continued into November.

High school football and the Labor Day holiday weekend did not lead to a surge in cases; however, public health authorities remain concerned that colder weather and the return of flu season could lead to another surge in cases.

President Donald Trump has expressed optimism that a coronavirus vaccine could be commercially available this fall. A number of public health officials, including the CDC director, have expressed skepticism of that optimistic appraisal.

At least 969,611 people have died from COVID-19 globally, including 204,506 Americans.

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Health

Study: Those with COVID twice as likely to have dined in restaurants

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten in restaurants, which builds upon known factors about how the disease is transmitted, experts say, but the study has limitations.

The study surveyed 314 adults in 10 states and found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at restaurants within the previous 14 days. Researchers found that there was no significant difference between those who tested both positive and negative and who said they had gone to gyms, coffee shops, used public transportation or had family gatherings.

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes.

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, told APR on Wednesday that the study lends evidence to what the medical community knows are potential risks for contracting COVID-19, which include being indoors and unmasked, but there are nuances to each of those activities that can either increase or decrease that risk.

The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, and infectious disease experts say being outdoors decreases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s also hard to know what policies are in place where these people were recruited from for this study,” Hidalgo said. “Whether they’re required to be masked or if there’s a decreased capacity in a restaurant.”

Monica Aswani, assistant professor at UAB’s School of Health Professions, said she would be cautious about interpreting the study through a causal lens.

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“People who are willing to dine in restaurants are also likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as not wearing masks. Since this is a survey, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the source of exposure was restaurants without contact tracing to supplement it,” Aswani said. “Likewise, respondents may have misreported their behaviors, given the sensitive nature of the questions. The authors note this as a limitation and highlight how participants were aware of their Covid-19 test results, which may have influenced how they responded.”

Aswani also noted that the questions about dining did not differentiate between indoor versus outdoor seating, “which represent different levels of risk to exposure.”

“Participants who visited a restaurant on at least one occasion, regardless of the frequency, are also considered similar. Consequently, in the two weeks before they felt ill, someone who dined on a restaurant patio once and someone who ate indoors at five different restaurants are indistinguishable in their data,” Aswani said.

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Hidalgo said that while there are clear limitations to the CDC’s study, the findings do back up what the medical community knows about the transmission of the disease.

“I would very much look at this from the big picture perspective, and say we know that indoor activities are an increased risk for COVID-19. This study lends evidence to that,” Hidalgo said.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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Health

CDC director: Vaccine won’t be available to general public until mid-2021

Eddie Burkhalter

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CDC director Robert Redfield (VIA CSPAN)

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during testimony Wednesday before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee said a vaccine won’t be widely available to the public until mid-2021. 

Wearing a mask is the most important public health tool we currently have in the fight against the deadly disease, he said.

“I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” CDC director Robert Redfield told lawmakers.

Asked during the hearing by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, when a vaccine will be ready “to administer to the public,” Redfield said that he believes there will be a vaccine that will initially be available some time between November and December. 

“But very limited supply, and it will have to be prioritized,” Redfield said. “If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to go back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.” 

Redfield said it will take time to expand vaccinations out from those who need them most direly to the larger public, and said there are about 80 million people in the U.S. who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk and need the vaccine first. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said there will likely be a vaccine available to the public possibly before the November election or even sooner. 

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When asked about Redfield’s statements that one won’t be available to the public until the summer or early fall of 2021, Trump said during a press conference Wednesday that Redfield was mistaken. 

“I think he made a mistake when he said that. It’s just incorrect information,” Trump said. “And I called him, and he didn’t tell me that. I think he got the message maybe confused. Maybe it was stated incorrectly. We’re ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced, and it could be announced in October. It could be announced a little bit after October.” 

Trump refuted the CDC head, and said the vaccine will be made available to the general public “immediately” once one is approved. Asked for Trump’s timelines as to when a vaccine will be ready to administer to the wider public, an official at the press conference seated near Trump said that will likely occur by the end of March. 

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The Trump administration on Aug. 14 announced that the McKesson Corporation would be the central distributor of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. The company distributed the H1N1 vaccine during the 2009-2010 pandemic. 

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine trials were put on hold worldwide on Sept. 6 after a volunteer in Britain experienced a serious health problem. The company’s vaccine trials resumed in the United Kingdom on Saturday.

The company in a statement said it was working with global health authorities to “be guided as to when other clinical trials can resume.” 

The drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Tuesday announced that those enrolled in the clinical trial for the company’s own COVID-19 vaccine were experiencing mild to moderate side effects, but that an independent monitoring committee has not yet recommended pausing the study.

There have been 2,392 COVID-19 deaths in Alabama since the pandemic began, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

At least 193,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.

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