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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. 

“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.” 

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“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. 

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.”

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National

Monday is Memorial Day

Brandon Moseley

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Today, the last Monday in May, is the day we set aside to remember all of the many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have died defending this country in this nation’s many wars over the last 245 years.

Memorial Day is a state and national holiday. There will be no mail service and banks, courthouses, and many government buildings, as well as many offices and businesses, will be closed today.

Many people have the day off and are spending the holiday with family and friends.

A number of Alabama leaders have released statements paying their respects to America’s fallen heroes.

“Memorial Day is a time for all of us to pause and remember the courageous Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend this great nation,” said Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Montgomery). “Everyone should take this opportunity to honor and reflect on those men and women in uniform who lost their lives fighting to protect the freedoms we enjoy. “

“I realize that Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff to summer. However, I hope you will take time to remember what the holiday is truly about,” said Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville). “Veterans Day in November is about honoring all veterans, but Memorial Day is specifically for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and died for our country.”

“On Memorial Day and every day, it’s important to remember and honor the sacrifice made by the members of our military – those who gave their lives in service to our country, the veterans who are still with us today and those who have passed, and the brave men and women who are currently wearing the uniform,” Rep. Roby said. “I extend my sincere condolences to those who lost a family member in the line of duty and my gratitude to those who served or are currently serving. America continues to shine as the Land of the Free, even in the midst of a global pandemic, because of the heroic men and women who sacrificed their lives for our country’s future and prosperity.”

“It’s great that we’re able to be out of our homes this Memorial Day,” said Second District Congressional District candidate Barry Moore. “Hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill are incredible, but as good as they are we don’t need to forget what this day is about. Memorial Day is our special day to honor those who have given their all in the service to our great nation, and May–Military Appreciation Month–is the month dedicated to letting our Veterans and serving military personnel know that we appreciate them and their service. As a Veteran from a family with a strong and proud history of service, and a new father-in-law to an Army Ranger 1st Lieutenant, this day and month have special meaning to me.”

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“I’m thankful we have a President whose example we can follow in honoring our fallen,” former State Rep. Moore continued. “In February, when President Trump traveled to Dover Air Force Base and saluted the coffins of Sgt. Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Sgt. Antonio Rey Rodriguez when they returned home, he showed the reverence and respect these two young men were due. This Memorial Day we all need to be equally diligent in showing that respect for those who have borne the battle. Take time today to think about what this day means, and if you get the chance during the rest of this month, tell a Vet or serviceman or woman that you’re thankful for them. God Bless our troops and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

“Together, our nation pays immortal tribute to the extraordinary courage, unflinching loyalty, and unselfish love, and supreme devotion of the American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said President Donald J. Trump (R) on Thursday. “It’s the ultimate sacrifice, and it is indeed. They laid down their lives to ensure the survival of American freedom. Their names are etched forever into the hearts of our people and the memory of our nation. And some of you, it’s been very close — very, very close. It’s very close to your heart. We’ll cherish them and our Gold Star families for all time. We take good care of them. They’re very special to us. Just as we’ll always remember the nearly 82,000 Americans missing in action.”

Here is a video that Aderholt and his team put together a few years ago to honor the fallen from Alabama’s 4th District.

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National

SEC clears path for member schools to resume athletics training on June 8

Brandon Moseley

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The Southeastern Conference announced on Friday, that voluntary in-person athletics activities may resume on Southeastern Conference campuses, at the discretion of each university, beginning June 8 under strict supervision of designated university personnel and safety guidelines developed by each institution.

The coronavirus crisis ended Spring sports such as baseball and softball and cost both men and women’s basketball teams most of their post-season play. Spring football camps were eliminated. No training has been allowed in on-campus athletics facilities since March 12. The SEC had suspended all athletics activities through May 31.

June 8 will begin a transition period that will allow student-athletes to gradually adapt to full training and sports activity after this recent period of inactivity. Each university has been instructed to develop plans that are consistent with state and local health directives. Under the new directive, certain activities will be permitted based on the ability to participate in controlled and safe environments, while also maintaining recommended social distancing measures.

The decision to resume athletics activities, which at this time is limited by the NCAA to voluntary activities supervised by strength and conditioning personnel, was made with the guidance of the Conference’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force.

The task force was created by the SEC’s Presidents and Chancellors in April and is comprised of a cross-section of leading public health, infectious disease and sports medicine professionals from across the SEC’s 14 member institutions. The Task Force will remain active to provide continued advice and guidance to the SEC and its members as they prepare for a return to competition.

“The safe and healthy return of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and our greater university communities have been and will continue to serve as our guiding principle as we navigate this complex and constantly-evolving situation,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process. Thanks to the blueprint established by our Task Force and the dedicated efforts of our universities and their athletics programs, we will be able to provide our student-athletes with far better health and wellness education, medical and psychological care and supervision than they would otherwise receive on their own while off campus or training at public facilities as states continue to reopen.”

As part of its recommendations, the Task Force prepared a series of best practices for screening, testing, monitoring, tracing, social distancing and maintaining cleaned environments. These recommendations are to serve as a roadmap for each school prior to and upon the return of student-athletes to their campuses.

“While each institution will make its own decisions in creating defined plans to safely return student-athletes to activity, it is essential to employ a collaborative approach that involves input from public health officials, coaches, sports medicine staff, sports performance personnel and student-athletes,” Sankey said. “Elements of the Task Force recommendations provided key guidance for determining the date of the return to activity.”

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The protocols include a three stage screening process that involves screening before student-athletes arrive on campus, within 72 hours of entering athletics facilities and on a daily basis upon resumption of athletics activities.

Testing of symptomatic team members (including all student-athletes, coaches, team support and other appropriate individuals) is part of the protocols.

It is recommended that schools immediately isolate team members who are under investigation or diagnosed with COVID-19. This is to be followed by contact tracing, following CDC and local public health guidelines.

Since most of the athletes have not been allowed to do anything but the most basic of workouts, there is to be a transition period that allows student-athletes to gradually adapt to full training and sport activity following the long period of inactivity.

During the month of June, NCAA regulations permit only strength and conditioning personnel to supervise voluntary on-campus athletics activities in the sports of football and men’s & women’s basketball. A current waiver that permits eight hours of virtual film review has been extended through June 30 for football and basketball.

Consistent with NCAA regulations, organized practices and other required physical activities remain prohibited in all sports. A previously announced suspension of in-person camps and coaches clinics conducted by SEC institutions remains in effect until July 31.

Many SEC schools hope to play their football seasons this fall on schedule. While football fall camps don’t begin until early August, coaches says that student-athletes need to be improving their strength, speed, and agility to get in the appropriate physical condition so that they can compete in fall camps. Without that strength and conditioning, coaches feel that more players could get injured in those practices.

On Thursday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) issued a new Safer at Home order that allowed schools to begin using their athletics facilities for strength and conditioning. Schools and educational institutions will be allowed to open subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines on June 1. Gyms across the state were allowed to reopen subject to social distancing and occupancy limits on May 24.

The relaxation of the health rules mean that the athletes will be able to compete in football seasons resume. It is still not known if there will be fans in the stands for those games, though University of Alabama Athletics Director Greg Byrne recently said that that is the school’s plan. Both the University of Alabama and Auburn University are members of the Southeastern Conference.

Fox Sports reported on Friday that if the 2020 football season was not played, the members of the ‘power five’ conferences (including the SEC), would lose over $5 billion in revenue. The cost cutting moves necessary to balance budgets after that hit would end virtually all non-revenue generating sports, including every women’s sport, on campus. Athletics budgets were already hit from the loss of NCAA basketball tournament revenue.

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Economy

Talladega will hold GEICO 500 on June 21 without fans in the stands

Brandon Moseley

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The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has announced that the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 automobile races have all been rescheduled for the weekend of June 20 to 21.

They will be raced without fans in attendance.

“We are excited that NASCAR has announced the rescheduling of our April race weekend to June 20-21,” said Talladega Superspeedway President Brian Crichton. “While we will have cars on track, in the interest of the health and safety of all involved, including fans, NASCAR will be running our three races – the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 – without fans in attendance in accordance with the State of Alabama, CDC and public health agency standards and protocols.”

The Cup Series GEICO 500 will be held on Sunday, June at 2:00 pm CST.

The Xfinity series MoneyLion 300 will be held on Saturday, June 20 at 4:30 pm CST.

The ARCA series General Tire 200 will be held on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 1:00 pm CST.

“NASCAR, like Talladega Superspeedway, prides itself in being fan-friendly, and the fans drive everything we do,” Crichton said. “The decision to race without fans is focused on the long-term health of you and our sport. NASCAR has a great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition, and after thorough collaboration with public officials, medical experts and state and federal officials, NASCAR has implemented a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of the competitors and surrounding communities.”

“For our June 20-21 events, we hope you will enjoy watching and listening to the 3- and 4-wide racing at the sport’s Biggest and Most Competitive track via our broadcast partners FOX, FS1 and MRN Radio,” Crichton concluded. “We will persevere through this together.”

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Ticketholders may elect to receive a credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent of total amount paid to apply towards a future event, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, infield, camping, fan hospitality, and Talladega Garage Experience. The 120 percemt event credit can be used in a single transaction during the remainder of the 2020 season and entire 2021 season for a NASCAR sanctioned event at any NASCAR-owned track, subject to availability. Elections for an event credit or refund must be submitted by June 14, 2020.
Ticketholders may apply here:
https://www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/Vanity-Pages/2020/Assistance.aspx

Motorsports are the only major pro sports league that has resumed play after the coronavirus global pandemic struck in mid-March. The NBA is considering a proposal to playout the remainder of their season and playoffs sequestered at the Wide World of Sports complex at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida with no fans present. The NHL is in the process of considering a similar proposal to finish this year’s hockey season. Major League Baseball has not played a single game of their season yet. MLB owners have made a proposal that the league play an 80 game season without fans present. The idea is meeting with skepticism from MLB players due to a controversial proposal capping players salaries for this season in a 50:50 revenue sharing agreement. The proposal that would dramatically reduce MLB players’ salaries for this season. Horse racing and mixed martial arts have held some sporting events in recent weeks.

NASCAR has already held two races at Darlington and one at Charlotte after resuming racing on May 17. Kevin Harvik won the Real Heroes 400 driving a Ford and Denny Hamlin won the Toyota 500 driving a Toyota in the first two Cup Series races since NASCAR resumed racing after a ten week hiatus. NASCAR intends to run a 36 race season this year.

Motorsports are the only major professional sports league played at a major league level in the state of Alabama. In addition to the Talladega Superspeedway, the state is also home to the Barber Motorsports Parks near Leeds. The Barber facility hosts both professional motorcycle racing and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a NTT Indycar series event. That event was cancelled due to efforts to shut down the economy to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has already killed 98,705 Americans through Sunday morning.

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Congress

Aderholt says he is glad Alabama is loosening restrictions

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, said that he is “glad that our state is holding strong and loosening restrictions.”

“The first three weeks of May have been eventful for all of us, as parts of our economy in Alabama have reopened and as more economic relief bills have been brought before Congress,” Aderholt said. “I am glad that our state is holding strong and loosening restrictions so that we can go to church, get a haircut, and even sit down for a meal at certain restaurants. This is solid progress, and I am hopeful that we will see more of it as we move further into May.”

“Although there is not a great deal of good news coming from Washington, there is good news in Alabama,” Aderholt said. “As you all know and have experienced, our state is one of the most open in the entire country. Some studies have us ranked as the 4th most open state out of all 50 in the union. This is fantastic, especially since the number of cases has not spiked since enacting these measures.”

“Last weekend I asked a question on my Facebook page about how you think this strategy for reopening has been going,” Aderholt continued. “The results were overwhelming, as 73 percent of the responses were supportive of the strategy. I think this reflects what most of us are feeling, and that is an urge to get back to work and get back to normal.”

On Thursday, Gov. Ivey issued a new Safer at Home order that allowed many more businesses to reopen.

Arcades, theaters, bowling alleys, can now reopen subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines. Athletics facilities and activities will be allowed to reopen subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines for training on May 24. Schools and educational institutions will be allowed to open subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines on June 1. Athletics competitions can resume on June 14. Child day care facilities are open subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines. Summer Camps will also be allowed to remain open with rules and guidelines available.

All citizens are encouraged to stay home and follow good sanitation practices.

“This is a serious deadly disease,” Ivey said on Thursday. “It takes all of us being vigilant and adhering to the social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

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“People are safer at home to the extent that that is feasible,” said state Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. “We really need to remember to wear face coverings when you got out and avoid going out if you don’t have to.”

All retail stores are open subject to a 50 percent occupancy rate, social-distancing and sanitation rules. All medical procedures are allowed unless prohibited in the future by the State Health Officer to preserve resources necessary to diagnose and treat COVID-19. Healthcare providers must follow COVID-19-related rules and guidance from state regulatory boards or public health authorities. Senior Citizen Centers regular programming is still suspended except for meals still available through curbside pick-up or delivery. Hospitals and nursing homes still must implement policies to restrict visitation. Churches and houses of worship are allowed to meet but must maintain 6 feet of distance between persons not from same household. Restaurants, bars, and breweries may open with limited table seating, 6 feet between tables and subject to additional sanitation rules and guidelines. Athletic facilities and gyms, such as fitness and gyms, may open subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines. Close-contact service providers (such as barber shops, hair salons, nail salons, tattoo services) may open subject to social-distancing and sanitation rules and guidelines. Alabama’s beaches are open, but all persons must maintain 6 feet of separation. Some local governments have much more stringent policies that they have put in place.

These orders will be in place until July 3 at 5 p.m. at the sole discretion of the governor. Some local governments have put in place more draconian rules.

Robert Aderholt represents Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District.

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