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Jones: COVID-19 testing must increase as states consider reopening

Eddie Burkhalter

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Until testing for COVID-19 is more broadly available it will be unclear the extent of the deadly virus’s reach throughout Alabama and the U.S., and difficult to safely determine when to fully reopen the economy. 

That’s the message Sen. Doug Jones made during a press conference on Thursday, in which Jones and health experts from a Huntsville biomedical research campus discussed coronavirus testing as Alabama and other states work to determine when it’s safe to reverse more of the restrictions that health experts say have been successful at slowing the virus’s spread and saving lives. 

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. It was a measured, partial rollback of her more restrictive “stay-at-home order” and done, she said, after looking closely at the data, health outcomes and after listening to public health experts.  

“Once again I have applauded her for her thoughtfulness in doing this,” Jones said at Thursday’s press conference. “She is resisting the pressure to call for a complete reopening as some of the other states, and our neighboring states, have done. I think she’s doing it in a thoughtful way.” 

But Jones said there remains much to be concerned about as the number of confirmed COVID-9 cases in the U.S. has reached more than 1 million, with more than 62,0000 deaths, and because testing in Alabama and across the country is still limited, those numbers may be too low. 

Jones noted that although the U.S. makes up just more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the country accounts for approximately one-third of the planet’s COVID-19 cases and approximately 25 percent of the world’s deaths from the virus. 

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“That’s just a staggering couple of statistics, when you live in the greatest country on the face of the earth, and the greatest country that’s ever been,” Jones said. “So we got to do a better job, and to do a better job we got to get more testing.” 

“We can’t be lulled into complacency with trying to reopen, and without the ability to test in a much more significant way than we’re doing now,” Jones said. 

As of Thursday afternoon, there were more than 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Alabama, and at least 269 deaths from the virus, but less than 2 percent of the state’s population had been tested since early March, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

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Only 11 Alabama counties had tested more than 2 percent of their populations, and just one, Bibb County, had tested above 3 percent. As of Thursday, 3.1 percent of residents in Bibb County had been tested, according to ADPH data analyzed by APR. 

As APR reported on Wednesday state public health officials continue to have problems getting the needed staffing, testing supplies and reagents used during testing. Currently, the state is testing an average of 1,000 people daily, the ADPH has estimated, though that number now seems to be rising, but it includes tests done at the state lab and at commercial labs. 

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR earlier this week that the state is aiming to test up to 50,000 each week, which would be about 1 percent of the population every week, and he thinks there’s enough capacity in all of the labs statewide to do so, but said “practically speaking, we’re nowhere near that.”

Alabama needs more tests available to a broader spectrum of the public, done routinely and affordably, as state officials consider fully reopening the economy, Jones said. 

Jones said he sent Vice President Mike Pence a letter encouraging the White House’s coronavirus task force to conduct a national inventory of the country’s diagnostic test supply “and to release a detailed plan and timeline for addressing testing gaps in shortages.” 

“Quite frankly, the answers that we’ve been getting on those issues from the White House have not been good. They’ve been totally incomplete,” Jones said. “So I think the American public, I think members of Congress, deserve to see what our national supply is, what our inventory is, and what their plan is going to be going forward if we’re going to open this country the way that everyone would like to get it back to.” 

President Donald Trump on Monday announced the White House’s “blueprint” for increasing testing capacity, which leaves it up to the states to draft their own plans and for the federal government to be a “supplier of last resort.”

The federal plan drew quick criticism from those who worry the White House isn’t doing enough to help support testing efforts by the states.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, said Trump’s plan lacks credibility due to previous White House promises about coronavirus testing that never materialized, according to The Washington Post.

“It’s got to be something that’s mandated by the federal government and then implemented by the states based on the federal government’s plan with the money that allows for the testing,” Pallone told The Washington Post. “You can’t have a reliance that somehow the chain drugstores are going to set up these testing sites voluntarily through their drive-through pharmacies. That’s what they promised last time. And it never happened. And it won’t happen because it’s not based on a national plan, it’s not enforceable, and they’re not providing the funding for it.”

Neil Lamb, vice president for educational outreach at HudsonAlpha, a nonprofit biotechnology research campus in Huntsville, said during the press conference with Jones that COVID-19 testing has been a challenge. 

“And continues to be, but there are a number of players coming to the table now with tests that are rapid, that have a higher level of accuracy that at some point down the road may allow us to actually do testing from our homes. We are not at that point yet,” Lamb said. 

Richard Myers, president and science director at HudsonAlpha, said researchers are working to create coronavirus tests that can be done using saliva, in addition to the existing nasal swab tests, but that testing overall must increase exponentially if we’re to get a handle on the virus. 

“We don’t need to do just thousands of tests. We need to do millions of tests. Probably millions a day, or week at least, for the whole country,” Myers said. 

Work is underway to create tests that give much faster results, and that can be done in batches of thousands and tens of thousands, instead of hundreds at a time, Myers said. 

“I think we desperately need that,” Myers said, adding that he believes that’s possible to do with the science we have now. 

Those new large batch tests might also not require the same supply chain of testing materials, which have been in short supply,  hampering the ability to test more broadly nationwide, Myers said. 

“So that’s going to be an important part here. I think we will see this happening in the next few weeks, the ability to do this. And then the logistics of implementing that around the nation will be the hardest part, but even that’s being worked on as well,” Myers said. 

Asked by reporter Brian Lyman at The Montgomery Advertiser whether, in absence of widespread testing, targeted testing, in which a sample of a community is tested, may be effective, Lamb said it could be. 

“At least gives us some initial information about the potential spread, and/or the presence of antibodies within that population,” Lamb said. 

Myers said such targeted testing could be implemented now, and that combined with the more rapid tests that run large batches at once and done cheaper “we could be doing this at a much, much higher level.” 

“If we are able to do this on a really large scale, and the logistics have to be implemented for that,  then that will go a long way towards stemming the tide,” Myers said. 

In addition to testing whether a person has COVID-19, there are tests that are meant to determine whether someone had the virus in the past and has built an immunity to the virus, known as antibody tests. 

There are hundreds of such tests on the market, Myers said, and some may be accurate, but “most are not.” Researchers are working to determine which of those tests work the best, and for ways to test millions of people for those antibodies, rather than thousands. 

Lamb said that data seems to suggest that those who were infected with coronavirus do produce some immunity to the virus. 

“There might be some caveats to that, but it really looks like if you have been infected you are going to produce the antibodies, and it gives you some immunity,” Lamb said. “That immunity is not lifelong. It may be a series of months. It may be a couple of years.”

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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Congress

Republicans blast Jones for refusal to even consider Trump nominee

Brandon Moseley

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Republicans criticized U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Friday for saying that he would not vote to confirm any nominee by President Donald Trump before the Nov. 3 election.

Alabama Republican Party chair Terry Lathan called Jones’s announcement “disgraceful.”

“It’s disgraceful that Senator Jones is dismissing his duties when he announced he would not support the confirmation of any Supreme Court justice nominee put forth by President Trump prior to the November election,” Lathan said in a statement. “The Constitution of our country clearly states that the President ‘shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court…’”

“At the very least, Senator Jones owes Alabamians the simple courtesy of meeting with the nominee regardless of what he already plans to do,” Lathan continued. “It’s time for him to do his job, at least until November 3rd.”

“The people of our great state have spoken,” Lathan concluded. “The majority support President Trump and his policies which includes the conservative judges he has nominated for the federal bench. However, Doug Jones continues to ignore the wishes of the majority of his constituents and falls in line with his liberal party bosses, Hollywood supporters and New York fundraisers. On Election Day, Alabamians will give their advice and consent to remove Doug Jones from office. Tommy Tuberville will represent the majority’s values when he is elected as our next U.S. Senator.”

On Friday, Jones was asked if he would even meet with the nominee. His response was, “I don’t think my vote’s going to count, so I doubt they’ll even want to.”

“The President’s nominee hasn’t even been announced but anti-Trump Democrat Doug Jones has already made up his mind against the person,” said NRSC spokesperson Paige Lindgren. “Refusing to take part in a consequential Supreme Court confirmation process is the latest example that Jones has one foot out the door. He’s clearly no longer focused on representing the people of Alabama.”

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Former State Rep. Perry Hooper Jr., a Trump supporter, said that Jones votes against “everything that the people of Alabama believe in.”

“Doug Jones has consistently voted against the President and everything the good people of Alabama believe in.” Hooper said. “Jones is against the 2nd Amendment, he is for government funded abortions and he is a globalist. Alabama needs to send a strong pro-life, pro-business, pro-Trump and pro-American to Washington DC. And that man is Coach Tommy Tuberville.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has vowed to bring the president’s pick to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

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“Thank God for Senator Mitch McConnell,” Hooper said. “Senator McConnell has 51 votes to confirm the President’s nominee to the US Supreme Court.”

Conservatives are hopeful that a more conservative court will vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court precedent that prevents state governments from banning abortions.

“Senator Doug Jones betrayed Alabamians when he voted against Justice Kavanaugh and has betrayed them again today, before President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has even been named,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “During his short time in office, Jones has proven to be an extremist, repeatedly siding against constituents and voting with the most radical members of his party – like Kamala Harris – in favor of abortion on demand through birth, paid for by taxpayers. Asked about his stance on limiting late-term abortions more than halfway through pregnancy, Senator Jones laughed and called the issue ‘stupid.’ Jones is unfit to represent the pro-life, pro-Trump state of Alabama and will be held accountable at the ballot box.”

Many media sources are reporting that Trump will appoint Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Comey Barrett to fill the vacancy on the court left by the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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Josh Moon

Redemption not revenge drives Tuberville supporter

Josh Moon

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Edgar McGraw speaking at a Tommy Tuberville event.

It would make for a great political story if Edgar McGraw hated Jeff Sessions. In fact, it would be the kind of legendary story of revenge that TV movies are built around.

This man, Edgar McGraw, is arrested on drug distribution charges in 1986 and prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions. Sessions takes everything from McGraw and gives gleeful media interviews bragging about the arrest and seizures of McGraw’s property.

McGraw gets out of prison, rebuilds his life and becomes a respected, successful business owner. All the while, biding his time until the day he can exact revenge upon Sessions.

One day in 2020, he sees his chance: A former college football coach in a football-crazed state is running against Sessions for U.S. Senate. McGraw throws some money to the coach, hosts a fundraiser for him.

And the coach does the unthinkable. He upsets the 30-year politician. With McGraw’s help, Jeff Sessions’ career is over.

McGraw smiles.

But real life ain’t like the movies.

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And in real life, Edgar McGraw has none of these dreams of revenge. He holds no ill will. He wasn’t gleeful the night Sessions lost, instead he was glad his friend Tommy Tuberville won. And he didn’t back Tuberville because he was running against Sessions, but because McGraw and Tuberville were friends long before Tuberville dipped a toe into politics.

That’s life, I guess. You go looking for a revenge story and end up with a redemption story.

“(The conviction) is water under the bridge to me,” McGraw said. “I made my fair share of mistakes, I paid the price, and I have moved on with my life. I believe every single person makes mistakes in life, but how you respond to those mistakes and live life afterward is what really matters. As Dr. Tony Evans says ‘everyone is going to get knocked down in life in one way or another, what’s important is how you get back up.’

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“I never look back, that is just my personality. Just like you don’t drive a car looking in the rear-view mirror, I am always looking forward.”

I first heard about McGraw’s history a week ago, when someone sent me photos of Tuberville speaking at an event, McGraw standing by his side. McGraw was labeled a “felon” in a description with the picture, and that piqued my interest.

I read through a few newspaper articles about his arrest in the 1980s on drug distribution charges, and I thought it was possibly one of the craziest things I’ve come across in quite some time.

Basically, the story is this: McGraw, who was a successful businessman in Camden even in the 1980s, conspired with a handful of people to fly about $2 million worth of marijuana from Jamaica to a private air strip in Camden. The weed was going to McGraw’s farm, according to court records, where it would have been distributed and sold.

It never made it.

Drug dealers apparently aren’t great at physics, and $2 million in 1980 bought a lot of marijuana — approximately 1,400 pounds — that needed to be equally distributed around the small plane. Instead, according to media reports, the guys in Jamaica — McGraw wasn’t one of them — failed to secure the load and it all shifted to the tail of the plane. The plane crashed into a marsh on takeoff.

Still, Sessions and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were able to build a case with several informants and by flipping witnesses. And they went hard after McGraw, who maintained that he had a limited role. The federal jury that convicted McGraw of conspiracy to distribute also acquitted him of conspiring to import the weed, so there was obviously some gray area.

Regardless, Sessions went after McGraw’s property, utilizing recent and broad changes to asset seizure laws in the late-1980s that allowed prosecutors to tie virtually any property to drug money and then seize it. The federal government, with little evidence, took McGraw’s motel, the Southern Inn in Camden. It was one of the biggest asset seizures in the country at the time.

McGraw ended up being sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served less than half of that and prison records show he was released in 1992.

When I learned of McGraw’s history, I tweeted a couple of the newspaper clippings and speculated that McGraw had thoroughly enjoyed Tuberville ending Sessions’ political career. Because, I mean, Sessions took the guy’s motel — for marijuana that didn’t even get here.

He has to hate him, right?

Then I emailed McGraw to ask if he’d be willing to talk to me about it. I expected one of two things to occur: Either he would ignore me altogether or he’d accept the interview and express his great personal satisfaction.

He did neither.

Instead, McGraw told me the same story that he’s been telling at the Christmas party for Camden work release inmates. He volunteers with a Christian ministry that works with the prisoners. And each year, McGraw, who now is best known as part owner of the McGraw-Webb Chevrolet dealership in Camden, stands up in front of those inmates and lets them know that there is a pathway to redemption. To a better life. To a happy life.

“What happened coming up on almost 35 years ago, seems like a lifetime ago,” McGraw said. “My faith grew immeasurably during those years and the Lord has blessed me immensely since. I have been happily married for 27 years and I have three wonderful children; 26, 25 and 21 years old. I would want people to know to not let the past mistakes in life mold you. Brokenness can be a breakthrough.

“I feel like I am one of the most blessed people in the world and I give God all the credit. I would hope that I would be thought of as someone who came back home, worked very hard and served his community, church, and family to the absolute best of my God given ability.”

As far as his dealings with Sessions, McGraw said he’s had very little. While he clearly disagrees with Sessions’ decisions in his case — all McGraw would say is that he’d leave that up to Sessions to answer for — he said he’s spoken to the former U.S. AG just once in the past three decades. That meeting came at an Auburn basketball game, where McGraw introduced himself and reminded Sessions of their past. McGraw said the conversation was cordial and lasted only a few minutes.

He swears he holds no ill will towards Session at this point. His support of Tuberville had nothing to do with his history, or even politics really. Records show McGraw has donated to only one campaign in his life — Tuberville’s. And that came about because the two are old friends.

“My relationship with Tommy Tuberville began sometime while he was coaching at Auburn,” McGraw said. “We became friends with the Tubervilles as our sons became close friends while attending Auburn University and our friendship has grown since. Our family made our first contribution to Tuberville in April of 2019. I want to be very clear that my support of Tommy Tuberville was only influenced by our friendship and his political views and had nothing to do with Jeff Sessions.”

And maybe that’s for the best.

2020 has more than its fair share of nasty political stories, revenge stories and just plain ol’ dirtiness. Maybe a good story of redemption is something we could all use at this point. Maybe what we need to hear is the message that McGraw gives to those 100 or so inmates each year at Christmas.

“I strive to give (them) the hope that whatever they have done in the past does not have to limit their future,” McGraw said. “I learned to take nothing for granted and that every single day is a gift from above.”

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Elections

Merrill gives guidance on straight party, write-in voting

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill issued guidance Wednesday on straight party and write-in voting.

“Voters who wish to vote straight party for all of the Democratic or Republican candidates on their ballot may do so by filling in the bubble next to their party preference at the top of their ballot,” Merrill explained in a statement.

“If a voter wishes to vote for any candidate outside of the selected party, however, he or she may do so by filling in the bubble next to the preferred candidate’s name. In doing so, the candidate(s) voted on outside of the voter’s designated party ballot will receive the vote for that particular race.

In addition, if a voter wishes to write-in a candidate, he or she may do so by filling in the bubble next to the box marked ‘Write-in’ and then printing the name of the preferred candidate on the designated line.

Write-in votes must be hand-written and not stamped or otherwise artificially applied to the ballot.”

Sample ballots for the Nov. 3 general election are available online.

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Economy

SNAP replacement benefits coming to three counties hit by Hurricane Sally

Staff

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Thousands of SNAP recipients in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties are set to receive automatic replacement benefits as a result of Hurricane Sally, the Alabama Department of Human Resources announced Thursday.

Recipients who received their benefits Sept. 1 through Sept. 16 will receive a replacement of 50 percent of their regular monthly benefit. Those who received supplemental pandemic maximum allotment payments will receive a replacement of 30 percent of those benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service approved the replacement benefits today at the request of DHR. The benefits are intended to replace food purchased with SNAP that was lost to widespread power outages caused when Hurricane Sally made landfall on Sept. 16.

“Our priority is to remove the very real threat of hunger for the many Alabamians who are struggling from the devastation of Hurricane Sally,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. “The first step toward that goal is to replace the food that so many Alabamians lost to the storm. We are actively working to obtain additional resources to provide much-needed relief for the region as it recovers.”

Hurricane Sally caused over 265,000 households to lose power for at least four hours in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties, where approximately 54,000 households will receive SNAP benefits totaling an estimated $8.5 million.

Those recipients should expect to see the replacement benefits automatically loaded onto their EBT cards next week.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama.

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More information about the program can be found at dhr.alabama.gov/food-assistance.

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