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Alabama COVID-19 cases rising at pace not seen since early April

Chip Brownlee

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After a dip in new reported COVID-19 cases beginning around April 12, the number of new cases being reported in Alabama per day is trending back up again as the state on Tuesday reported its largest daily increase since April 9.

The rise in cases comes as the death toll in Alabama surpassed 300 on Tuesday, increasing to 315 by the end of the day.

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 325 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the total number of people in the state who have tested positive to 8,437. At the end of the day Monday, the total was 8,112.

Because of the variations and inconsistencies in the times that labs report totals to ADPH, the Alabama Political Reporter has been tracking seven-day and fourteen-day rolling averages to smooth out the data.

The Alabama Department of Public Health also uses three-, seven- and fourteen-day averages to track the severity of the outbreak, and all are trending back up.

Based on both seven- and fourteen-day averages tracked by APR, the number of new cases per day has been increasing since April 30. Both are now nearly as high as they were in the days following the April 9 “peak” of 339 cases.

While newly identified positive cases are rising, the amount of tests being conducted in the state is rising, too. According to health department data, 107,602 people have been tested since early March. But the amount of testing being performed varies widely between counties.

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Over the past seven days, about 4,500 tests per day have been performed, based on a seven-day rolling average. In mid-April, the average was about 2,000 per day.

But at that point in the response to COVID-19, many commercial labs were not reporting negative tests to the Alabama Department of Public Health, keeping the number of total test results low, and the department released testing data sporadically.

On one day, April 25, the Alabama Department of Public Health added 18,703 tests to its total, many of them backlogged negatives from weeks before.

While increased testing may be part of the reason for the rise in new cases, the state is still far below the benchmark level officials have set as the goal for testing. State Health Officer Scott Harris said last week that he wants 50,000 tests performed per week in the state, or about 1 percent of the population tested per week.

So far, 2.2 percent of the state’s population has been tested since March 13, when the state reported its first case.

The percent of tests that are positive has been relatively flat since April 25 at about 5 percent.

Across the state, health care workers and those who live and work in long-term care facilities have had priority access to testing. As of Tuesday, 2,575 health care workers, long-term care residents and long-term care employees have tested positive. That’s about 30 percent of the confirmed cases in the state.

The number of cases among those groups is still likely an undercount, as the Alabama Nursing Home Association said Sunday that its members still need more tests. Only a few facilities have been able to test all of their residents. And when they have been able to test all residents, they’ve found a number of asymptomatic cases.

As of Monday, 91 of the state’s 231 nursing homes have reported positive cases to the association. At least 107 long-term care facility residents have died, as of Sunday, which was about 36 percent of the state’s confirmed cases. Long-term care facilities include both nursing homes and assisted living.

The number of confirmed cases in the general population is assuredly an undercount. Many cases of the virus are asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and people with no or mild symptoms are still finding it difficult to get a test or may not seek one at all. People who are infected but aren’t showing symptoms are still able to infect other people.

While the new upward trend began just after Gov. Kay Ivey lifted her statewide stay-at-home order on April 30, that’s unlikely to be the cause of the increase in new cases over the past five days. Not enough time has gone by for the results of that decision to show up in the data.

Infectious diseases experts and the state’s health officials have said it takes at least two weeks to feel the effect of any such policy changes because of the virus’s incubation period and delays in testing and reporting.

But the rise in cases is cause for concern as the state eases back into a phased re-opening with many people returning to work. If the virus is still widespread, the rate of transmission could increase rapidly as people return to more normal activity. Ivey lifted some restrictions last week, allowing retail businesses to open at 50 percent occupancy, though many other restrictions remain in place.

The state’s beaches have opened with social-distancing restrictions. Churches, restaurants, bars, barbershops, salons, and large event venues remain closed to in-person services under Ivey’s new order unlike in Georgia.

Even as a number of restrictions remain in place, cell phone location data shows that travel patterns are also trending upward from their lowest points in mid-April — and began rising before Ivey announced on April 28 that she would lift her stay-at-home order on April 30.

On April 30, as restrictions were lifted at 5 p.m., travel to retail and recreation, according to Google’s data, was at its highest point since around March 20, more than two weeks before Ivey issued her stay-at-home order.  No new data since April 30 is available, but during the time for which data is available, travel patterns have remained below normal levels for this time of year.

The rise in new cases also comes as sheriffs across Alabama are threatening not to enforce Ivey’s current safer-at-home order. Sheriffs in Marshall and Franklin County — which have seen some of the fasted growth over the last week — are refusing to enforce the state’s public health order.

Mobile County, which began easing local restrictions as it passed 1,000 cases last week, has reported the most new cases of any county in the state, far outpacing Jefferson County, which has the second-most cases. More than 270 new cases have been reported in Mobile County in the past seven days.

In Chambers County, which has the highest per capita case count and the most deaths per capita, the outbreak there appears to have slowed to a trickle. Only 13 new cases have been reported there over the past seven days, but the sheriff there told AL.com that he will continue to enforce the governor’s orders.

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Economy

Ag commissioner concerned about collapsing beef prices

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate (R) is concerned about dropping cattle prices and the impact that that is having on Alabama’s farmers and ranchers.

“We have been very dialed into the crisis Alabama Cattle Producers are up against,” Pate told the Alabama Political Reporter. “We will continue to closely monitor this dire situation and the market impact it is having on Alabama’s cattle farmers . . . as well as consumers.”

“After I was contacted by a number of Alabama’s stockyards and Cattle producers expressing concern with regards to market inconsistencies and increased consumer prices…… I wrote a letter to Senators Shelby and Jones requesting that they join in on a push for an investigation of the meat packing industry,” Pate said. “I am encouraged by the support we are getting from both Jones and Shelby. It’s also great to see Alabama Producers joining in together in an effort to formulate a strategy to address the current situation.”

Commissioner Pate shared the April 6 letter.

“Over the last five days, I have been contacted by many stockyards and cattle producers concerning the seemingly inconsistent drastic reduction in futures prices for cattle while at the same time consumers are purchasing more beef at grocery stores than at any time in recent memory and at the same time grocery store shelves are empty of beef,” Pate wrote the Senators. “There is concern from many in the cattle industry that the large meat packing companies are manipulating markets to put cattle produces and local stockyards at a disadvantage during a national crisis. Due to depressed cattle prices and uncertainty over cattle prices multiple stockyards will not conduct business this week.”

“I understands that Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota have recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to investigate whether the large packing companies are manipulating beef markets to fix prices at a level that negatively impacts beef producers,” Pate wrote. “I urge you to join your fellow senators in calling for this investigation to make certain that Alabama cattle producers are not suffering from artificially low beef prices.”

COVID-19 has impacted many areas of our lives. That includes at the grocery store where selection of beef, pork, and chicken products can be a hit and miss proposition for shoppers due to hoarders and to less cattle, hogs, and chicken being killed because of slaughterhouses suffering high absenteeism due to COVID-19. The big four major packers: Tyson Foods, Cargill/Excel, J.B.S. Swift, and National Beef process over 80 percent of the cattle. When their daily productions dropped there was an oversized effect on cash and futures markets, because of the lack of competition and because 70 percent of the cattle they process are forward contracted. If a feedlot was not forward contracted they often could not sell their cattle at any price.

The spot market or cash market generally determines live cattle prices. Some in the industry have accused the big four meatpackers of engaging in an “allied strategy” to manipulate the spot market so that the four major companies can profit at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

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Sen. Grassley praised President Donald J. Trump’s recent call for an investigation into possible anticompetitive behavior in the beef industry. Last month, Grassley lodged a similar request with the Departments of Justice and Agriculture.

“While consumers are facing record-level prices at the meat counter, America’s Beef producers are being forced to sell their cattle to meatpackers at a loss, if they can sell them at all,” Sen. Grassley said. “Consolidation in the meatpacking industry has exacerbated the market pain on both sides of the supply chain, and producers and consumers need to know whether unfair business practices by packers are to blame.”

“I’ve called on the Trump administration to look into unfair or anticompetitive practices and I’m grateful that President Trump has made this issue a priority,” Grassley added. “USDA is looking into unfair pricing practices. DOJ must also examine if any collusion within the packing industry has taken place in violation of our antitrust laws.”

Grassley has long raised concerns about consolidation in the meatpacking industry and pressed USDA to protect independent producers.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently called for an investigation into the business practices that lead to unfair marketplace for beef producers. R-CALF filed suit against the Big Four packers last year alleging that the four companies are engaging in an “allied strategy” in defiance of U.S. anti-trust law.

Rick Pate is a cattle rancher in Lowndes County. The Pate family has raised Charolais beef cattle in Alabama for decades.

(Original writing and research by Montgomery area writer Amy McGhee contributed to this report. McGhee’s parents have a Black Angus beef cattle farm in Tennessee.)

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Elections

Sessions, Tuberville build campaign war chests headed toward runoff

Brandon Moseley

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Former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) is running in the July 14 Republican Party primary runoff against former Auburn head football Coach Tommy Tuberville. Both turned in Federal Elections Commission reports showing campaign activity through the end of April when Alabamians were still under shelter in place orders to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Sessions was able to transfer over his previous campaign account and he has slightly more cash on hand than Tuberville, but Tuberville had the most votes in the March 3 Republican primary and has led throughout in most of the polling.

Former Auburn football Coach Tommy Tuberville in his filling with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) reports that the campaign has collected total contributions of $2,299,292.20. Tuberville has loaned his campaign $1,000,000. The campaign reports operating expenditures of $2,074,302.74 and has refunded $15,525 in contributions to individuals. Tuberville has repaid $750,000 of the loan that he made to himself. His campaign reports other disbursements of $1,000. .

The Tuberville campaign is reporting a cash balance of $458,819.40 with debts and loans owed by the committee of $393,043.23.

Tuberville’s largest contributors include: Terry Young of Birmingham, AL $10,000. He is the CEO of Southern Risk Services. Douglas Gowland of Gates Hills, Ohio $10,000. He is retired. Stiles Killett of Atlanta, Georgia $10,000. He is the Chairman of Killett Investment Corporation. Marcus Calloway of Atlanta, GA $10,000. He is self employed real estate attorney. Connie Neville of King’s Hill, Virginia $8,400. Connie is a self employed designer. William Neville of King’s Hill, VA $8,400. He is a manager with U.S. Viking. Sandra Hicks of Rainsville, AL $8,000. Sandra is a homemaker. Dennis Hicks of Rainsville, AL $8,000. Dennis is the CEO of Colormaster. M.S. Properties LLC of Wellington, AL $7500. Austin Brooks of Vestavia Hills, AL $6,400. Brooks is a senior associate with Highpoint Holdings.

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III reported total receipts of just $1,740,194.28. Of that $1,619,657.39 came from contributions. Sessions’ total individual contributions were $1,237,923.39. Sessions also raised $381,73 from other campaign committees. Sessions reported other receipts of $114,759.89. Sessions had total disbursements of $3,815,148.56 of which $3,709,022.56 were operating expenses. The Sessions’ campaign reports ending cash on hand of $749,235.59.

Sessions has received a number of contributions through the WinRed platform. WinRed is an American Republican Party (GOP) fundraising platform endorsed by the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump. It was launched to compete with Democrat’s success in online grassroots fundraising with their platform ActBlue. Contributors to the Sessions campaign include: Scott Forney of San Diego, California $5,600. He is the President of General Atomics. John Gearon Jr. of Atlanta, GA $2,800. John is an executive with the Gearson Foundation. Jean Penney $2,600 of Gurley, AL is retired. Steven Thornton $7,600 of Huntsville is the CEO of Monte Sano Research. Susan Braden of Washington D.C. $2 800 is retired. Betty Ann Stedman $5,600 of Houston, TX is an investor. Hans Luquire $5,000 of Montgomery, AL is self employed in the HVAC business. Dr. Carl Gessler Jr. $2600 of Huntsville, AL is a heart specialist. Samuel Zell $2,800 of Chicago, IL is the Chairman of Equity International. Leon Edwards $2,800 of Mountain Brook, AL is the owner of Edwards Chevrolet.

The Alabama Republican Party primary runoff was originally scheduled for March 31, but was moved to July 14 due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

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The winner of the Republican primary runoff will have just a few short months before going up against incumbent Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) in the November 3 general election.

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Congress

Roby: Applications for farmers to sign up for food assistance program open today

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Montgomery) sent an email to constituents with a link on how farmers and ranchers can sign up for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program which opens today.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week released details on the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for farmers, ranchers, and producers affected by COVID-19,” Rep. Roby wrote. “Applications open on May 26 and will be accepted at USDA Farm Service Agency offices through August 28.”

You can learn more about CFAP here.

According to USDA, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, provides vital financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who have suffered a five-percent-or-greater price decline or who had losses due to market supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 and face additional significant market costs.

Eligible commodities include: malting barley, canola, corn, upland cotton, millet, oats, soybeans, sorghum, sunflowers, durum wheat, hard red spring wheat, wool, cattle, hogs, and sheep (lambs and yearlings only), dairy, apples, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lemons, oranges, papaya, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, tangerines, tomatoes, watermelons, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, dry onions, green onions, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, taro, almonds, pecans, walnuts, beans, and mushrooms.

Alabama farmers hard hit by low commodity prices and market disruption caused by COVID-19 may apply beginning today.

Alabama Farmers Federation National Affairs Director Mitt Walker said farmers have eagerly anticipated the details of the CFAP since President Donald Trump and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the $16 billion program a month ago.

“Farmers in Alabama appreciate President Trump, USDA Secretary Perdue and Congress for recognizing the detrimental impact COVD-19 has had on the industry,” Walker said. “Securing our nation’s food supply is critical, and unfortunately, the virus has dealt our farmers another blow when many were already having a tough time making ends meet.”

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Walker said the Alabama Farmers Federation staff have already begun looking over the final rules and will work closely with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to assist farmers in applying for these funds.

CFAP will provide up to $16 billion in direct payments to deliver relief to farmers and ranchers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pres. Trump and Secretary Perdue unveiled the program during a press briefing at the White House, accompanied by farmers including American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Zippy Duvall.

“I want to begin by expressing our profound gratitude to everyone here today and the farmers and producers across the country who have kept our nation fed and nourished as we have battled the invisible enemy,” the President said. “Now, we are standing strong with our farmers and ranchers once again. In normal times, roughly about 40% of fresh vegetables and about 40% of beef grown and raised in the United States is distributed to restaurants and other commercial food establishments. But as you know, the virus has forced many of our nation’s restaurants to temporarily close, and this has taken a major toll on our farmers and growers. For this reason, my administration is launching a sweeping new initiative, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.”

You can read more about program specifics at the Alabama Farmers Federation site.

Congresswoman Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She is serving in her fifth term and will retire at the end of this year.

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Congress

Brooks wants to suspend guest worker programs

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) announced that he and five other members of the U.S. House of Representatives have sent a letter to President Donald J. Trump (R).

“38+ million Americans have lost their jobs in the last 2 months,” Rep. Brooks wrote on social media. “The April unemployment rate was 14.7%, the highest rate since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is now more important than ever to put the interests of American workers first. I, along with five conservative colleagues, sent a letter urging President Trump to suspend the guest-worker program for at least one year. Last month, President Trump signed an executive order suspending certain green cards for 60 days. That’s good, but more can be done to protect American workers. Suspend the guest worker program!”

“We should not force Americans to compete with foreign nationals while jobs are scarce, and Americans should get priority consideration for employment when businesses are able to reopen,” the letter stated. “We urge you to suspend granting any new guest-worker visas for at least one year, and potentially longer depending on the strength of the economy.”

The letter was also signed by Reps.: Andy Biggs (R-Arizona), Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Brian Babin (R-Texas) and Steve King (R-Iowa).

The US economy shrank by an annualized 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, ending the longest period of expansion in the country’s history, an advance estimate showed. It was the steepest pace of contraction in GDP since the last quarter of 2008. Joblessness is estimated at 23 percent, the highest rate since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 40 percent of Americans who make less than $40 thousand per year are now jobless. The forced economic shutdown was implemented at the urging of the Centers for Disease Control, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other public health officials to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

America rewrote its immigration laws in 1965. At that point there were only 9.6 million foreign born persons in the entire country. That number has risen to more than 45 million, due to both legal and illegal immigration. High rates of immigration has driven U.S. population growth as American family size has continued to drop; but it has also helped keep median incomes largely flat from 1980 to 2017. This helped keep inflation from becoming a significant brake on the economy; but it also contributed significantly to growing wealth inequality as upper income earning Americans saw their wealth and incomes increase at a far higher rate than the bottom three fifths of the population. There was some significant wage growth during the Trump administration through February, though that appears to now be a casualty of the forced economic shutdown and the shelter in place orders that closed thousands of business, some who now appear unlikely to ever reopen.

As of early Tuesday morning, 5,607,726 people across the globe have tested positive for the coronavirus strain, SARS-CoV-2. The new virus was first identified late last year in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. Of those 2,384,589 have already recovered and 348,256 have died from COVID-19. 99,806 Americans have already perished in the global pandemic. President Donald J. Trump (R) recently halted nonessential travel from Brazil because of the growing coronavirus situation there. The virus has recently been spreading rapidly in Latin America where many of our guest workers come from. 68,620 Mexicans now have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 7,394 have died, including 215 on Monday alone.

Congressman Mo Brooks represents Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. Brooks is presently in his fifth term.

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(Original reporting from the Hill contributed to this report.)

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