Renowned infectious diseases expert Dr. Michael Saag, a professor and associate dean at UAB’s School of Medicine, said Tuesday that Gov. Kay Ivey’s new “safer-at-home” order is a moderate and cautious step forward — not toward normalcy but toward a new normal.
In an interview with APR, Saag praised Ivey for not fully lifting restrictions, giving in to pressure or going as far as neighboring states like Georgia that have moved more rapidly toward reopening their economies.
“She is trying to balance the competing needs of the business world and the public health world,” said Saag, who has been a pioneer in HIV research and on the front-lines fighting viruses across the world. “And it looks like she’s leaning more toward the public health space, which I think is totally appropriate. Because your business may or may not be able to survive. But if somebody dies from COVID, there’s no second chance. I think she gets it.”
The governor’s new order, which will go into effect on Thursday, April 30, at 5 p.m. after the current stay-at-home order expires, allows retail businesses to reopen at 50 percent capacity as long as social-distancing is maintained and stores are disinfected regularly and appropriately.
“My fellow Alabamians, let me be abundantly clear,” Ivey said. “The threat of COVID-19 is not over.”
Unlike other Southern states like Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, Gov. Kay Ivey is not allowing restaurants to reopen for dine-in service. Barbershops, nail salons, hair salons and tattoo parlors are also to remain closed. Hospitals will be allowed to resume elective procedures, a key component of most hospitals’ revenue stream, if safety precautions are in place.
“The greatest disservice, for the people who might be watching me today, 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,” Ivey said. “Folks, we must continue to be vigilant in our social distancing both today and for the foreseeable future.”
As associate dean for global health, an infectious diseases specialist and the director of the Center for AIDS research at UAB, Saag has spent his career fighting HIV and other viruses across the world. In March, Saag was infected with the virus, one of the first health care workers in Alabama to test positive.
Saag said Ivey’s new “safer-at-home” order, which is similar to the order in place before the “stay-at-home” order issued on April 4, is a reasonable and cautious step.
“I don’t see anything here that says people should think about this as a return toward normalcy,” Saag said. “This is not normal, but it’s appropriate.”
But Saag said the threat from COVID-19 is not gone. A second wave could emerge, requiring the state to dial back the relaxed order if the situation changes. Alabama Department of Public Health chief Dr. Scott Harris said the same in an interview with APR Monday.
“I think we just try to do it gradually and respond,” Harris said. “And then if we have to dial back, we dial back. And if we are doing okay, we continue gradually easing restrictions.”
Saag said the public should be prepared for COVID-19 to be a dire public health concern for months, if not years. Until a vaccine can be developed, which will take at least a year, and possibly longer, the threat will remain.
“There’s hardship everywhere,” Saag said. “So we’re hoping that this is a short-lived experience that will be in our rearview mirror very soon. The reality that few of us have begun to comprehend is that it’s likely that this thing is going to be with us for many months to come. And facing that reality is demoralizing, but yet, I think, is a requirement for us to get through this.”
As states across the country begin to revise restrictions and move into economic recovery and virus containment, the country is embarking on a kind of giant social experiment, with different states trying different measures. Some, Saag said, are being more responsible. Others, he said, are moving recklessly, and the outcomes could have ripple effects for Alabama.
“And as part of this giant experiment, we’re going to have to monitor the outcomes very closely in the counties that border the states that, in my opinion, are being irresponsible,” Saag said. “Georgia, in particular, is worrisome.”
Already, Lee County, Chambers County and Tallapoosa County, areas in East Alabama near or along the Georgia border, have seen some of the highest rates of infection and death in Alabama. All three of those counties have per capita death and infection rates higher than Jefferson County.
Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, was one of the first in the country to rapidly relax stay-at-home restrictions, just weeks after putting them in place and before meeting the White House’s gating criteria for a phased-in reopening. Kemp’s actions even drew criticism from the president, who said he had moved too quickly.
“Not only did Gov. Kemp ignore those guidelines, but he has also gone to an extreme of opening up many businesses, for which there is no chance at maintaining social distance,” Saag said. “So he’s created a petri dish for the virus to have a field day with. It’s wide open for the virus.”
Whether a spike in cases occurs in Georgia will depend on if people act upon their own individual concerns and avoid going out to restaurants, bars and other venues that are beginning to reopen in Georgia.
“If it turns out Gov. Kemp is correct, I suppose in retrospect, he will have done us all a favor,” Saag said. “On the other hand, if Georgia experiences an accelerated spike in cases, then he will have placed his entire population who elected him into office to protect their health and security at huge risk and basically will have failed to carry out the duties of his office.”
By comparison, Ivey, Saag said, seems to be erring on the side of caution.
“It seems to me that Gov. Ivey is in the camp of respecting the virus and respecting our relative lack of knowledge at this stage, and I applaud her for her cautious move forward,” Saag said, adding that Alabamians should not venture into Georgia just because they’ve lifted restrictions. “We’re dealing with an infectious disease. It’s pretty contagious. It’s contagious person to person, and it looks like it’s going to be somewhat contagious state to state.”
Back in Alabama, growth in the number of new cases is largely dependent on which county you’re in. Marshall and Mobile counties have seen rapid growth in the past few weeks, with Mobile seeing its cases spike higher than Jefferson County, despite having a smaller population and having tested fewer people.
“In some ways, we have our own social experiment that’s already happened,” Saag said. “And the preliminary data indicate that what Jefferson County did worked, relative to the counties that were slow to respond. You know right away, it underscores the value of the study of public health, and the implementation of standard practices. So we’re going to see what happens next.”
Going forward, Saag urged Alabamians not to let their guard down. The future of the pandemic remains unknown. Testing remains limited, though Harris and the Alabama Department of Health said they are working hard to expand access to testing and some progress has been made.
“I can see a horrible case forward and I can see a good case going forward,” Saag said.
The horrible case is that people, like Saag, who have been infected and have demonstrated strong immune responses, turn out not to be protected against the virus for very long. Scientific research has not fully concluded how long immunity lasts.
“We could get sick again,” Saag said of that possibility. “That happens with certain RNA viruses [like the novel coronavirus]. We don’t know yet if that’s the case, but if it is the case, that’s the Rod Serling nightmare that not only is there no immunity for people who’ve had the infection, the hope for a vaccine becomes vanishingly small. And I don’t even want to ponder those outcomes.”
The good case is that immunity lasts a long time, or at least long enough. Acquired immunity is different for different viruses and for different people. For some viruses, like the flu, immunity — either through infection or through vaccines — wanes over time as antibodies disappear from your body.
“On the good side, immunity works,” Saag said. “People who have had the infection are relatively protected against the challenge and don’t get infected and don’t get sick again. The vaccine is developed over the next two years where it’s available to people. And the best case is that an antiviral drug is discovered that can shorten the course of illness and prevent people from getting so sick that they end up in an ICU and die. This latter scenario is possible.”
Q&A with Dr. Michael Saag
Chip: What is your initial response to Ivey’s new “safer-at-home” order?
Saag: I think it is, all things considered, pretty reasonable. I suspect she is trying to balance the competing needs of the business world and the public health world. And it looks like she’s leaning more toward the public health space, which I think is totally appropriate. Because your business may or may not be able to survive. But if somebody dies from COVID, there’s no second chance. And I think she gets it. And, you know, retail stores, we’ll see if people feel comfortable going to them. People are going to vote with their feet. I’ve said this over and over. You know we could open up even restaurants but I don’t think people would elect to go in there and sit at tables, even if they’re spaced apart, because there’s no way to do social distancing at a restaurant or a bar.
Chip: Does this mean that people should not stay at home anymore, just because the state has lifted some restrictions and is now saying you’re safer at home? Does that mean people should run out and start doing things and acting normally like they were before?
Saag: No. I don’t see that in this at all. What I see is the opening line. People are encouraged to stay at home and practice good sanitation procedures. That is the headline. And then, the subtext is, okay, retail stores can reopen with social distancing guidelines, but occupancy will be limited. The beaches I don’t quite understand because I don’t know how you control gatherings on a beach but assuming it’s not a crowded beach, that’s probably okay. But everything else remains, as far as I can tell it, pretty much the same. It looks pretty similar. So to answer your question, no, I don’t see anything here that says people should think about this as a return toward normalcy. This is not normal, but it’s appropriate.
Chip: Yeah, I guess I should have prefaced that question with saying I was being a little bit facetious. But that’s what a lot of people are gonna say: this is an indication that things are getting better and so we can go back out and act normal.
Saag: Just one other thing that’s important to mention, is this: Nobody knows exactly what the right thing to do is. We’ve never encountered this before. We’re extrapolating from past experience with other epidemics, our knowledge of virology and knowledge of the immune system, our early knowledge of the infectiousness of this virus and our clear knowledge of what it does to people, once they get infected. And so it’s a killer virus, literally. So, no matter what we do, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. And in many ways, what’s happening throughout the United States is a giant social experiment. Some states are going to extreme measures to get back to normal “rapidly,” and others are being more cautious and conservative and respectful of the virus and the limitations of our knowledge. It seems to me that Gov. Ivey is in the camp of respecting the virus and respecting our relative lack of knowledge at this stage, and I applaud her for her cautious move forward, which to me is totally appropriate.
Chip: In regard to this “social experiment,” looking at how different states are lifting different restrictions, the neighboring state to Alabama’s east, Georgia, seems to have taken probably the most extreme approach at trying to reopen immediately. What is the concern about this kind of that patchwork of different restrictions? We’ve seen in Lee County and Chambers County and Tallapoosa County — counties that are close to the outbreak in southwest Georgia — that that’s also kind of the epicenter of the outbreak in Alabama, too, or it has been at certain points in the course of the pandemic. Should people be concerned about other states lifting their restrictions and then coming to Alabama? Or people on the Georgia border going into Georgia to shop or eat at restaurants or whatever? What’s your read on that situation?
Saag: We’re dealing with an infectious disease. It’s pretty contagious. It’s contagious person to person, and it looks like it’s going to be somewhat contagious state to state. And as part of this giant experiment, we’re going to have to monitor the outcomes very closely in the counties that border the states that in my opinion are being irresponsible. Georgia, in particular, is worrisome. They are not even following the federal guidelines set forward by the Trump Administration, which require a clear downward turn in the incidence of new cases for at least 14 days before any change in stay at home orders are issued. Not only did Gov. Kemp ignore those guidelines, but he has also gone to an extreme of opening up many businesses, for which there is no chance at maintaining social distance. So he’s created a petri dish for the virus to have a field day with. It’s wide open for the virus. If it turns out Gov. Kemp is correct, I suppose in retrospect, he will have done us all a favor. On the other hand, if Georgia experiences an accelerated spike in cases, then he will have placed his entire population who elected him into office to protect their health and security, at huge risk, and basically will have failed to carry out his duties of office. To me, it is governance malpractice what he’s doing.
Chip: Going forward in Alabama, things seem to have slowed pretty significantly in Birmingham but then we have different areas of the state that are still seeing a quick acceleration of cases — Marshall County, Mobile County. From an epidemiological, containment perspective, how difficult is it going to be going forward to try to contain the virus in the different places in the state accelerating at different rates?
Saag: In some ways, we have our own social experiment that’s already happened. You mentioned some counties, like Jefferson that have demonstrated extreme foresight and implemented stay at home well before other counties. And the preliminary data indicate that what Jefferson County did worked, relative to the counties that were slow to respond. You know right away, it underscores the value of the study of public health, and the implementation of standard practices. So we’re gonna see what happens next. We’re going to have to manage the relative heterogeneity, for lack of a better word, from county to county responses. What I would hope would happen is that all the counties will look at each other’s experiences. And then we can hone in on a standard that can be applied more universally throughout the state. I sense that’s what the governor is doing in her cautiousness. And that is really a great thing for right now.
Chip: Going forward, there have been concerns from a lot of people that there’s the risk of the second wave. We don’t have a vaccine yet. We haven’t, by all indication, reached any kind of herd immunity. Hopefully, the safer-at-home restrictions will keep the rate of new infections flat. Nobody knows how this is going to turn out, but how should people read the risk going forward?
Saag: I think we should assume the virus is still here and will remain for the indefinite future. That future can be out to two years. The other thing I think we can assume is that the majority of the population will remain susceptible. So the virus has a place to go if we let our guard down. And taken together, this epidemic in the United States is going to continue for quite a while, despite our best hopes that it goes away. I can see a horrible case forward and I can see a good case going forward.
The horrible case is that people like myself, who have been infected and have demonstrated strong immune responses still are not protected against a second challenge [reinfection]. And we could get sick again. And that happens with certain RNA viruses [like the novel coronavirus]. We don’t know yet if that’s the case, but if it is the case, that’s the Rod Serling nightmare that not only is there no immunity for people who’ve had the infection, the hope for a vaccine becomes vanishingly small. And I don’t even want to ponder those outcomes.
On the good side, immunity works. People who have had the infection are relatively protected against the challenge and don’t get infected and don’t get sick again. The vaccine is developed over the next two years where it’s available to people. And the best case is that an antiviral drug is discovered that can shorten the course of illness and prevent people from getting so sick that they end up in an ICU and die. This latter scenario is possible. And we’ll find out in the next couple of months whether treatments are actually going to work, at least the ones that are currently in testing.
Chip: That’s a really good point.
Saag: The concluding comment I think that’s inherent in this is that the public is aware of this pandemic for sure, and the public feels its impact both medically but also economically. And there’s hardship everywhere. So we’re hoping that this is a short-lived experience that will be in our rearview mirror very soon. The reality that few of us have begun to comprehend is that it’s likely that this thing is going to be with us for many months to come. And facing that reality is demoralizing, but yet, I think, is a requirement for us to get through this.
Judge orders Alabama to change voter requirements over COVID-19 concerns
In his 197-page ruling, the judge wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified.”
A federal judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a case challenging aspects of Alabama’s voting requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Wednesday ruling orders the principal defendant in the lawsuit, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, to allow curbside voting, in the counties that choose to do so, but only for the Nov. 3 general election. The judge’s rulings pertain solely to the Nov. 3 election.
Kallon also ordered the state to do away with the requirement for voters to have two witnesses or a notary sign their absentee ballot, if the voter submits a statement that they have an underlying medical condition that puts them at a heightened risk from COVID-19 and thus, they cannot safely get those additional signatures.
In addition, Kallon ruled that voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition won’t need to submit a copy of a photo ID with their absentee ballot, so long as the voter provides other identifying information, such as their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number.
In his 197-page ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”
“That is for three reasons,” the judge continued. “First, because the Challenged Provisions only marginally advance the State’s interests in maintaining them while significantly burdening the right to vote, all three provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments during the pandemic.”
“Second, because the photo ID requirement and the de facto curbside voting ban make voting inaccessible for voters with disabilities, both those provisions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act during the pandemic. Finally, because the witness requirement interacts with Alabama’s history of discriminating against Black citizens to deny Black voters’ their right to vote, that provision violates the Voting Rights Act during the pandemic.”
The lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, was brought on behalf of several Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.
“This decision is a huge win for Alabama voters, especially voters of color and voters with disabilities,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel at LDF, in a statement. “Given COVID-19, Alabama’s draconian voting rules needlessly place the health and voting rights of Alabamians in danger. No one should be forced to risk their safety to exercise their constitutional right. State and local election officials have a responsibility to ensure that voting is easy and accessible for everyone in the pandemic.”
Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, applauded Wednesday’s decision.
“Today’s decision provides crucial relief in Alabama’s absentee voting process, allows for curbside voting in counties that wish to provide it, and ultimately will create a better public health situation in Alabama as it conducts an historic election,” Short said. “We’re deeply hopeful that the secretary of state and county election officials will accept the court’s ruling and begin educating Alabama voters on how they can vote safely and easily for the general election.”
“This ruling recognizes the hardships these laws place on Black Alabamians and those at particular risk for COVID-19. This decision will help to ease those burdens in the midst of this deadly pandemic,” said Davin Rosborough, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Merrill, in a statement to APR after the ruling, said he plans to appeal the verdict, which he likened to “judicial activism.”
“I am extremely disappointed in today’s ruling in the case of People First of Alabama v. Merrill relating to the November 3 General Election. Judge Kallon’s ruling to disallow the Secretary of State from prohibiting an illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting’ undermines the integrity of the elections process and the ability for Alabamians to cast a secret ballot as the chain of custody is then broken,” Merrill said. “It is important to remember that counties are in no way required to offer the illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting.”
Kallon in his ruling noted that “No provision of Alabama law expressly prohibits curbside or drive” but that there’s also no provision in state law allowing for the practice, and that Merrill then believes curbside voting to be illegal. Kallon also wrote that several states do allow for curbside voting, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends states allow curbside voting to comply with social distancing rules and in limiting personal contact during in-person voting.
“In addition, the photo ID and witness requirement components are necessary deterrents for those wishing to illegally influence elections,” Merrill continued. “We look forward to successfully appealing this decision as we continue fighting for safe and secure elections – free from voter fraud and judicial activism.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement said he will ask for an appeal of Kallon’s verdict.
“Back in June, the district court in this case enjoined these important protections for the primary runoff. But the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, staying that injunction and allowing the State to enforce its laws. We will ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to do the same again,” Marshall said. “Voting began weeks ago. And every Alabama voter is entitled to vote under the same laws, not new ones written by a federal court in the middle of voting.”
Gov. Kay Ivey extends statewide mask order, allows limited nursing home visitations
“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended Alabama’s statewide mask order, citing the upcoming general election and a reduction in the spread of the virus since her order went into effect in July. Ivey’s new order also allows for limited visitations in state nursing homes, and keeps all other previous social distancing restrictions in place.
“I’d hate to see us pull back too quickly and negate the progress that we’ve made in our daily positive numbers and our hospitalization rates by risking another spike due to a false sense of security, the upcoming winter months, the flu season and a host of other reasons,” Ivey said during a press conference Wednesday.
Ivey said that with the Nov. 3 Election Day nearing “it’s important to have a safe environment where our poll workers poll watchers, and those of us who would like to vote in person.”
Ivey said that voters aren’t required to wear a mask to vote in person, “I’m certainly going to wear my mask because I want to protect the poll workers and others that are going into the polls as well.”
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said state hospitals are caring for about half the number of COVID-19 patients than were hospitalized in late July, during a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and just before the mask order was issued.
“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” Harris said. “There have not been any additional restrictions imposed on our state since this Stay at Home order at the end of April.”
Harris noted an August study released by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that looked at that state’s jurisdictional mask orders, and found that in the 40 percent of jurisdictions that have mask orders COVID-19 cases were reduced by nearly half, compared to an increase in cases by 30 percent in jurisdictions without mask orders.
White House Coronavirus Task Force Member Dr. Deborah Birx during a visit to Alabama last week urged Ivey to extend the mask order. Birx had praised Ivey’s statewide mask mandate during a previous visit to the state in July, when nine of the first 13 days of that month saw daily case increases in COVID-19 cases statewide of more than 1,000.
Ivey’s amended “safer-at-home” order also states that beginning Friday, hospitals and nursing homes shall ensure that each patient or resident can have one caregiver or visitor at a time, with some exceptions.
Ivey’s order states that the changes are “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed on the entrance of persons because of the COVID-19 county positivity rate, the facility’s COVID-19 status, a patient’s or resident’s COVID-19 status, caregiver/visitor symptoms, lack of adherence to proper infection control practices, or other relevant factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with the following guidance from the federal government,” and goes on to list links to Centers for Medicaid and Medicaid Services guidance for the different facilities.
Ivey said during the Wednesday press conference that none of her previous statewide orders prevented anyone from accompanying a loved one into a hospital, and said despite that, there has been some confusion on the matter. She said her amended order made that fact clear.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told The Montgomery Advertiser in June that hospitals have control over visitations. Hospitals statewide have enacted individual varying rules on visitations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harris also discussed the work being done to ready the state for disbursement of a vaccine, if and when one becomes available. Harris said a plan for doing so must be given to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by mid-October.
“Obviously, we’re following very closely the safety data and efficacy data so that we are sure that we have a vaccine product that’s going to be safe and effective,” Harris said. “And I’m confident that information will be available for us, and then we can make a really good decision on that as we start to receive this vaccine.”
Harris said the supply of a vaccine will initially be limited, and state health officials will have to prioritize disbursement for high-risk people, including health care workers, but that the state will release its plan to do so to ensure openness in the process.
Alabama ABC Board rescinds alcohol sales curfew
On Tuesday, the Board approved a new order, which notes that the 50 percent occupancy requirement remains in place.
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Tuesday voted to rescind a previous order that forced bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 11 p.m. The measure went into effect immediately upon their vote.
Board members on July 27 unanimously voted to enact the 11 p.m. alcohol sales curfew as cases of COVID-19 were surging statewide and Alabama’s ICU beds were filling with patients stricken with the disease.
On Tuesday, the Board approved a new order, which notes that the 50 percent occupancy requirement remains in place. Customers and workers must also wear masks, if not eating or drinking, and remain six feet from others, according to the order.
The Board’s decision to rescind the curfew comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Alabama have declined following Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order in mid-July, but public health officials remain concerned that the number of COVID-19 patients in state hospitals remains too high.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR on Tuesday that while the state has made improvements since a surge in cases in July, and the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in Alabama is about half what it was in early August, “they’re still a lot higher than they were back in the spring, so I wish we would continue to see more improvement, but I think we’re definitely much better than we were a couple of months ago.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, suggested to Ivey and Harris on her July visit to the state that Alabama close its bars, which health officials say can be breeding grounds for the spread of COVID-19.
One of Ivey’s advisors suggested closing the state’s bars, but the board was instead tasked with finding a different solution, board administrator Mac Gipson told board members during the July 27 meeting prior to the vote to enact the curfew.
The plan at first was to cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m., Gipson said at the July meeting, but bar owners contacted the board over concerns about potential losses in revenue, so it was pushed back to 11 p.m.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox on Saturday issued a warning that tickets would be issued for bars that exceeded the city’s 50 percent occupancy limit.
Maddox was responding to photos posted to the Facebook page of the band The Velcro Pygmies playing live at the Tuscaloosa bar Rhythm and Brews, where patrons were tightly packed together and not wearing masks. The post was later deleted after going viral.
Maddox in August ordered the city’s bars to shut down for two weeks in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Governor: Alabama will get 1 million rapid antigen COVID-19 tests
The state is to receive the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow rapid tests in phases over the next few months. The initial shipment is set to include approximately 96,000 tests.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that the Trump administration is to send 1 million new rapid COVID-19 tests to Alabama, but the details on their use was still being worked out.
Ivey’s office announced in a press release that the state is to receive the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow rapid tests in phases over the next few months, and that the initial shipment is to be of approximately 96,000 tests.
It was unclear Tuesday who will get the tests or whether the results will be required to be reported to The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), however. In a statement Ivey said while we await a vaccine “providing Alabamians – especially our students and vulnerable citizens – with this free resource will be another critical tool in the toolbox to combat COVID-19.”
Our Office is working in coordination with Public Health as we firm up plans for distribution. We are working to ensure students and high-risk individuals have access to this resource,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, in a response to APR’s questions Tuesday.
Questions to ADPH on Tuesday weren’t immediately responded to.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 26 gave an emergency use authorization to Abbott laboratories for the rapid antigen tests, which is the first of its kind to require no lab equipment.
The USDA on Sept. 18 reissued an emergency use declaration, changing wording to say that the tests are to be used “within the first seven days of the onset of symptoms” and that “testing facilities within the United States and its territories are required to report all results to the appropriate public health authorities.”
“Studies have shown that antigen levels in some patients who have been symptomatic for more than five days may drop below the limit of detection of the test. This may result in a negative test result, while a more sensitive test, such as RT-PCR, may return a positive result,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in guidance on the use of antigen tests.
The Trump administration approved a $760 million contract with the company to produce about 150 million tests.
“We’ll ship tens of millions of tests in September, ramping production to 50 million tests a month in October,” Abbott Laboratories said on the company’s website.
Other governors were making similar statements Tuesday about pending Abbott Laboratory tests coming to their states.
President Donal Trump on Monday announced plans to ship 100 million of the tests to states based upon population.
“Governors have the flexibility to use these tests as they deem fit, but we strongly encourage governors to utilize them in settings that are uniquely in need of rapid, low-tech, point-of- care tests, like opening and keeping open our K-through-12 schools; supporting critical infrastructure and first responders; responding to outbreak, specifically in certain demographics or locations; and screening of surveillance in congregate settings,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official in charge of COVID-19 testing for the White House’s coronavirus task force, speaking with Trump from the Rose Garden on Monday.
The Abbott Laboratories rapid antigen tests, which use a swab and a small card and can provide results within 15 minutes, have some similarities to existing antigen tests now being used across Alabama, which use small machines to provide quick results.
ADPH has struggled at times to get results from those existing rapid antigen tests, which are often used in non-traditional lab settings, such as nursing homes, universities and urgent care clinics, some of which aren’t accustomed to ADPH’s reporting process.
Dr. Karen Landers, an assistant state health officer for ADPH, told Kaiser Health News last week that she was concerned about the undercounting of antigen test results, and that some providers were struggling to submit results.
“We can’t afford to miss a case,” Landers told the news outlet.