People must remain vigilant and careful as more businesses reopen and people return to more normal activity, Alabama’s top public health officials say, because the threat from COVID-19 has not dissipated.
“I would say we’re really concerned,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris in an interview with APR. “The numbers are not headed in the right direction, especially in some parts of the state.”
Harris pointed to the rising number of confirmed cases in Montgomery County and other areas of the state, and the high number of hospitalizations and rising death toll in Mobile County as remaining areas of concern.
Testing has increased across the state, Harris said, which is contributing in part to more positive cases being identified. By Sunday, more than 156,000 people had been tested in Alabama, up from 95,000 on May 1.
But the increase in testing, while it may explain rising case counts, does not explain stubbornly high hospitalization numbers and the rising death toll.
Over the last seven days, nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Alabama. On Thursday alone, the state reported more than 400 new cases for the first time, the largest single-day increase since the state confirmed its first case. Over the last week, seven- and 14-day averages of new reported cases have remained higher than any previous point.
Meanwhile, the percent of tests that are positive has remained relatively stable.
“This disease has not gone away,” Harris said. “We’re not out of the woods. We have got a long way to go.”
As of Sunday afternoon, more than 11,700 people in Alabama have tested positive for the virus. At least 488 have died.
“There are clearly outbreaks that are going on, and we have a lot of concern about that,” Harris said. “Mobile is still seeing a lot of patients. All of those are really worrisome.”
Harris said as more businesses and other things reopen, people need to continue to adhere to social-distancing guidelines and good hygiene. Businesses should follow sanitation guidelines if they are open.
“We just need people to be really careful about following social distancing guidelines and good sanitation and hygiene, and stay at home when you’re sick,” Harris said. “The same messages we’ve been saying for months.”
Staying at home, if you can, even if you’re not sick, is still the best way to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. Many people who have the virus show no symptoms but are still able to infect other people.
Those who are particularly vulnerable — older people and those with underlying health conditions — should continue to stay at home.
If you do go out, avoid large crowds, stay at least six feet from other people and wear a mask. Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap.
“These are the only tools we have, and we need people to pay attention to them,” Harris said.
Jefferson County Health Officer, Dr. Mark Wilson, said in an interview that his biggest concern going forward is the variable of individual behavior.
“I think, by and large, the people that are in charge [of businesses and churches] are being very careful to follow guidelines and take all the precautions they possible can — short of not doing it in the first place,” Wilson said. “But they cannot control someone doing something foolish. I think that’s where I mainly am concerned.”
Larger events — like church services, graduations and the like — pose a larger risk, Wilson said.
“I think the larger the event is, the more chances of either non-compliant people doing something they shouldn’t do, or accidents occurring, just by the odds of it,” Wilson said.
Both Wilson and Harris underscored the importance of wearing a mask or another face covering when leaving the home — not to protect you, but to protect other people.
“There might be a little bit of protection for you, but it’s certainly not reliable,” Wilson said. “It’s mainly to protect other people.”
If you do wear a mask, be sure to follow good practices for keeping your mask clean and removing it safely.
“What we’re all banking on, across the whole state, is for people to understand that we’re responsible for one another,” Wilson said. “We have to do our part to be good citizens, good neighbors, to care about one another. If we can’t get that, we’re going to fail.”
Flouting social-distancing guidelines, refusing to wear a mask and refusing to follow other good practices doesn’t just affect one person.
“There are people that say, ‘I’m willing to get sick. I’ll take the risk,'” Wilson said. “That is not a thing. You’re putting other people at risk.”
Wilson said the risk will not go away anytime soon. It could take at least another year, if not longer, to get a working vaccine.
“I think one of our biggest challenges is that people are already sick and tired of all of this, and they really want it to go away,” Wilson said. “Some people are just trying to wish it away. And I’m really worried about how we keep people motivated for many, many months.”
Some have suggested that the summer heat and humidity will cause the virus to disappear. UAB infectious diseases expert, Dr. Mike Saag, an associate dean at the UAB School of Medicine, said that is wishful thinking.
Even if heat or humidity reduces the rate of transmission to some degree, which has not been proven, the virus will not disappear completely and is likely to return in the fall.
“It’s not going to just disappear because of the heat,” Saag said last week. “Sorry, that is not going to happen. It’s going to be with us for the summer, or probably be with us into the winter, and it may be with us by this time next year. So, we need to get our heads around that and start making plans on how we’re going to manage it and not let it control us.
That plan will include contact tracing and expanding testing even further, Saag said.
Harris said the Alabama Department of Public Health is working with federally qualified health centers across the state to increase available testing in more rural areas. But the state’s lab and commercial labs across the state have struggled to get the reagents needed to perform tests.
Contact tracing is posing a big challenge, too. Harris said the state has moved staff to handle contact tracing, but will need to hire dozens, if not hundreds, more people to handle the load. And those they’ve already moved will eventually have to go back to their day jobs in the state’s sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis divisions.
After moving staff around, Harris said the department has about 60 full-time ADPH staff working on contact tracing. They’re also working to contract with outside call centers, school nurses and public health students who can help with contact tracing.
“But all that is contingent on if we’re going to have the money,” Harris said.
The state has been able to investigate positive cases, get in contact with those people and find out who they’ve been in contact with, and notify them that they may need a test and should isolate.
But the challenge has been “active monitoring,” which involves contacting those people who are positive, regularly, for the next two weeks, or longer, to get an update on their condition. The state does not have the staff to do that part of contact tracing as things currently stand.
“We’re doing the first two parts,” Harris said. “We investigate every case. And then we do all the contact tracing and find out who’s connected, and we touch base with them, or try to.”
But after that, ADPH doesn’t have the staff to keep up, Harris said.
“We don’t have any more information on really any of these people after that [initial contact],” Harris said. “That’s why it’s been so hard to answer the question of the recovery rate because you have to do that active monitoring to know when people get well. … But that third part we have not been able to do because we’ve got 11,000 cases and each one of those cases has many contacts.”
Over the last month, the Department of Public Health has received $5 million from the state to respond to COVID-19 and $8 million from a CDC grant. It has not yet received any money from the $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act funding for Alabama, which has been caught up in a legislative battle in Montgomery.
The Legislature will decide Monday what to do with the money.
“What we are looking at these other funds for is testing and tracing and other kinds of capacity building and responding when we have outbreaks,” Harris said. “We’d love to do some more productive things with you know nursing homes testing.”
Exposure notification app for college students launches pilot phase
College students across Alabama and anyone with a .edu email address are being invited to participate in an anonymous Exposure Notification System app for iPhone and Android users. The app launched in a closed pilot phase on Monday that will allow up to 10,000 downloads for each phone type.
The app is part of the GuideSafe platform, a suite of tools designed to help people reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It features a tool called HealthCheck, which allows users to report COVID-19 symptoms, and another called Event Passport, which uses an algorithm to assess whether a person is safe to attend a gathering of 10 or more people or not based on the responses they log in HealthCheck.
The GuideSafe platform encompasses the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives. Participation is voluntary and designed to protect users’ privacy while anonymously alerting each user to potential exposure to someone who has tested positive in the last 14 days. The exposure notification system assigns random numbers to each user to keep them anonymous to each other and to the system.
The app will be made available for mass public download later this month after the pilot phase ends and the app’s performance is assessed.
GuideSafe is the largest-scale testing initiative for higher education in the nation. It uses exposure notification technology developed jointly by Google and Apple.
Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, which is part of the state’s program for safe entry to campuses of higher education. Gov. Kay Ivey allocated more than $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the plan.
The pilot app was built by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-based MotionMobs, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”
Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students
The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches.
The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31.
Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19.
The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office.
“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”
Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.
“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”
The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project.
“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”
According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus.
Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama.
Jones urges USDA to extend waiver program for school meals amid COVID-19
Unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends a waiver program, set to expire at the start of school, thousands of Alabama’s schoolchildren without transportation to school and who are learning remotely could miss out on school meals.
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and dozens of other senators on Wednesday urged the USDA to extend vouchers that provide critical meals to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools around the country to close their buildings and shift instruction to online and distance-learning models,” the senators wrote in a letter to USDA. “For many children, school breakfast and lunch may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive.”
The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of parents their jobs, the senators wrote, and millions more students will be dependent on school-provided meals.
“School meal program directors must begin procuring food, equipment, and supplies and placing orders now in preparation for the upcoming school year,” the letter continues.
The waivers have allowed students to receive free meals when learning remotely, and the meals could be delivered to areas when transportation wasn’t available for students.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey during a press briefing hosted by Jones on July 24 said “we do not anticipate that waiver being extended by the United States Department of Agriculture.”
Mackey said those waivers allowed for the delivery of meals to students who couldn’t come to school to pick the food up, and it allowed for the serving of bulk items, such as milk by the gallon. That all goes away if the USDA does not extend the waivers, he said.
“Essentially, they will have to come to school to get the meals,” Mackey said.
Mackey said last week that about half of the state’s K-12 students will be learning remotely for a period of time once school begins.
The senators are urging the USDA to extend those waivers to help ensure low-income students can get school-provided meals throughout the upcoming school year. The senators also called on the USDA to reimburse schools for the transportation costs for delivering meals to low-income students.
“While many school meal programs are managing these costs for the time-being, they cannot continue absorbing them for the foreseeable future. We ask that the USDA make additional funds available to schools to assist with the cost of delivering meals to low-income students until regular school operations are restored,” the letter continues.
Senators in the letter asked the USDA to extend the following waivers:
- Unexpected School Closures Waiver
- Afterschool Activity Waiver
- Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Parent Pick-Up Waiver
- Waiver of Child Nutrition Monitoring
- Waiver of Food Management Company Contract Duration Requirements
- Waiver of Local School Wellness Assessments
- Area Eligibility Waiver
- Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waivers
Nearly 20 Alabamians per day died from COVID-19 in July
The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Friday that another 15 Alabamians had died by the last day of the month, raising the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state to 1,531. July was by far the worst month of the pandemic in Alabama — with 605 Alabamians dying from the virus.
The high death toll in July translates into a rate of 19.52 deaths per day over the course of the month. At least 299 of the 605 deaths in July occurred in the last two weeks of the month — a rate of 21.36 deaths per day.
The state of Alabama entered the month with 37,536 diagnosed cases of coronavirus combined for March through June. Many of those cases had long since recovered. A largely apathetic public ignored all the warnings and insisted on parties, barbecues and vacations, often without masks, radically worsening the conditions on the ground in Alabama.
Another 47,742 cases of the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, were confirmed by the state department of health in July alone — more than doubled the number of cases diagnosed in the month of June, when 19,584 coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Alabama.
Nearly 56 percent of Alabama’s known cases were diagnosed just in July. Hundreds of them have died. 35,501 Alabamians, mostly from the previous months, have recovered from their ordeal, but most of Alabama’s cases are still considered active infections.
As of Aug. 1, Alabama has the seventh-highest per capita infection rate in the country — with 1,822 cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times. When limited to cases in the last seven days, Alabama has the sixth-highest rate in the country — at 239 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days.
The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.
The state also set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations on Thursday at 1,642. Intensive care beds continue to be in high demand as hundreds fill hospitals.
While testing has increased, the percentage of tests that return positive rose dramatically through the month of July. On July 1, roughly 12.37 percent of tests were positive, based on 7-day averages of daily case and test increases. By July 31, that number rose to nearly 22 percent. Experts say that percentage — known as the positivity rate or percent positive — should be below 5 percent or many cases are going undetected and not enough tests are available.
On July 31, the Department of Public Health said “overwhelmed” labs and limited testing supplies are delaying testing results with most people taking at least a week to get their results back. Experts say test results that take that long are nearly worthless.
There are growing fears in business and government circles that the surging coronavirus cases could jeopardize what originally appeared to be an economic recovery. Already the Southeastern Conference, which includes the University of Alabama and Auburn University, has announced that it is moving the start of their college football season back three weeks from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26 to allow more time to assess the situation and plan for how they will play in the midst of the pandemic.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have extended the public health emergency to the end of August. The order to wear a mask or cloth face covering has similarly been extended to August 31.
Congress is debating passing another coronavirus relief package but Capitol Hill is bitterly divided on how large this latest package should be. Meanwhile, there were another 1.5 million new unemployment claims filed last week.