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Montgomery hospitals are out of ICU beds, mayor says

Chip Brownlee

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Some of the River Region’s major hospitals have run out of intensive care beds and others only have one or two beds left, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said Wednesday at a press conference in Alabama’s capital city.

“Right now, if you’re from Montgomery, and you need an ICU bed, you’re in trouble,” Reed said. “If you are from Central Alabama, and you need an ICU bed, you may not be able to get one because our health care system has been maxed out.”

The mayor said Baptist Medical Center East, as of Wednesday morning, only has three remaining ICU beds available. Baptist South has no ICU beds, and Baptist Health Prattville has no ICU beds left. Jackson Hospital, in downtown Montgomery, has one ICU bed remaining.

Statewide, over the past week, the number of people hospitalized has increased and is above the levels seen in early to mid-April when Alabama was expected to hit a “peak” of resource usage.

This shortage is despite efforts to expand hospital capacity, limit non-essential medical procedures and measures taken to add new “COVID-19 preparedness floors” to the hospitals.

“I want us to really think about the seriousness of that because none of us knows who may need that ICU bed today,” Reed said.

As of Wednesday, the Baptist Health system reported it is treating 96 COVID-19 inpatients across its three hospitals, up from 88 on Tuesday. At least 54 ventilators, out of 88 total, were in use, the hospital said, up from 52 on Tuesday. At least 9 inpatients are awaiting test results at the three hospitals.

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Jackson Hospital, as of Tuesday, was caring for 25 COVID-19 inpatients and 23 others who are awaiting the results of tests.

Patients are being diverted to hospitals in Birmingham, where more ICU beds are available. Sending patients 90 miles north to Birmingham area hospitals has not happened before during the crisis, Reed said, and it is something officials have tried to prevent.

“Our health care system is at a critical point right now,” Reed said. “And we’re at a point that we are now diverting acute care patients to Birmingham because of our ICU bed shortage. That’s very serious.”

Despite the ICU bed shortage, the area’s hospitals do currently have enough ventilators to meet demand, EMA Director Christina Thornton said at the press conference.

“Right now we’re okay,” she said.

The increase in hospitalizations comes almost three weeks after Alabama lifted its “stay-at-home” order on May 1. And a week and a half after the governor relaxed her “safer-at-home” order to allow restaurants, bars and barbershops to reopen.

“Who I probably heard from the most over the last five to seven days, no question has been from the medical professionals,” Reed said. “They have been yelling for us to be more vocal and visible in letting the public know what they’re seeing in our hospital system in this region, and they are very concerned about the levels of people that are coming in.”

Over the last two weeks, more than 470 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Montgomery, a dramatic increase since the beginning of the month. Before May 1, Montgomery County had only 355 cases of the virus. As of Wednesday morning, 950 cases of the virus have been confirmed since the pandemic began.

Montgomery now has more cases than any other Alabama county aside from Jefferson County and Mobile County, which have much larger populations. Over the last week, Montgomery has added more confirmed cases than any other county.

The mayor and EMA director urged Montgomery County and River Region residents to continue practicing social distancing and to stay at home if at all possible.

“Try to be mindful of others,” Thornton said. “Do be very aware of your Memorial Day weekend. This isn’t the time to have big block parties. This isn’t the time to get 50 or 75 people crammed in an apartment because you can’t go to a club. That’s where these numbers would triple. That’s where these numbers will get very, very bad in a very quick amount of time.”

On Friday, the governor and state health officer also urged Montgomery-area residents to be mindful, noting that Montgomery had been placed on a White House “watch list” of potential hot spots.

“I just want to reiterate, we are not there yet,” Reed said of getting key metrics down. “We are still in a place where we can go either way. And we don’t want to slip and fall off the cliff.”

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR last week that statewide numbers are not heading in a good direction, saying he was concerned about the growth in new cases, despite increases in testing.

“I would say we’re really concerned,” Harris said. “The numbers are not headed in the right direction, especially in some parts of the state,” pointing to Montgomery and Mobile.

Testing has increased across the state, Harris said, which is contributing in part to more positive cases being identified. Wednesday, more than 164,000 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.

Across the state, at least 514 people have died. In Montgomery County, the death toll stands at 26, as of Wednesday afternoon.

Reed urged residents to hold on a little longer and keep trying to fight the virus.

“It is important for us to take steps that are not only important for our own well being but those of our friends and our neighbors,” Reed said. “And so what I want to express to not only the city of Montgomery but to the River Region, all of Central Alabama, all of this state is be careful. I understand COVID-19 fatigue. People are ready to get back to sports, they’re ready to get back to recreation, they’re ready to get back to doing things they are used to doing. I certainly respect that and I understand that.”

We are tracking COVID-19 data on our mapping and data dashboard.

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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Governor

Alabama AG warns against nursing homes taking stimulus checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s top law enforcement officer on Friday warned against nursing homes intercepting federal stimulus payments to long-term care residents who are Medicaid recipients, but the state’s Nursing Home Association says it’s not aware that is happening, and it hasn’t been contacted by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the matter. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release Friday said that federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act cannot be seized by nursing homes to pay for care. 

“We are now beginning to receive a few reports of concern that some Alabama nursing homes may be attempting to take stimulus checks from residents who are Medicaid recipients. If this is happening, it needs to stop now,” Marshall said in a statement. “These stimulus checks are rightfully and legally the property of the residents and must be returned. Confiscation of these checks is unlawful and should be reported to my office.”

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, in a message to APR on Friday said that all concerns reported to the office will be reviewed and investigated.

“There have been four such reports thus far,” Lewis said in the message.

Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer in a separate press release Friday said that since the federal government’s announcement of the stimulus payment, the association advised members that any stimulus payment deposited to the accounts of nursing home residents was not to be used to reimburse the facility “and is the sole property of the residents.”

“We urge Attorney General Steve Marshall to let us know if he has any reports of diversion of residents’ stimulus payments so that we may clarify any misunderstanding that may exist,” Farmer said. “At this time, we are unaware of any facility where such diversion is occurring.

Farmer said the association has encouraged Marshall to contact them any time he has a concern about nursing homes, or has information he wants to pass along to our members.

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“As we have done throughout this pandemic, we stand ready to work with local, state and federal leaders to support Alabama’s nursing home residents and employees,” Farmer said.

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Governor

Legislators briefed on coronavirus crisis

Brandon Moseley and Nicole Jones

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and her team on Thursday briefed state legislators on the latest developments on the coronavirus crisis that has gripped the state for the last ten weeks.

State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told legislators that the state has 13,058 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. 528 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 COVID-19 related. More than 250 of those deaths have occurred in nursing homes.

Harris said, “So far, we have been able to fulfill all requests for medication in hospitals.”

Kelly Butler is the Alabama State Finance Director.

“The department is working diligently with each entity to provide aid/reimbursement throughout the state to responsibly use the CARES Act funding,” Butler said.

Butler said that new guidelines that the federal government issued regarding the funding are extremely detailed. Legislators will be given a special form to provide input as to what category or entity they see has the greatest need. Counties and cities will be issued guidelines to know what they can and cannot apply for regarding reimbursements.

Butler said that a website is being worked on to provide updates regarding applying for funds. For now, this information can be found on the governor’s website.

Department of Senior Services Commissioner Jean Brown also addressed legislators. Brown said that GA Foods has placed a successful bid with the Farmers to Families program. The Farmers to Families foods will be sending free foods to Alabama. The delivery of meals will begin after Memorial Day and end on June 30.

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Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told legislators that 100,000 masks and 2,500 gowns have been produced by ADOC textile factory workers. The staff and inmates have been provided at least 4 masks for their protection. Inmates have also received individual bottles of soap and hand sanitizer provided thanks to community support.

Dunn said that as of May 20, 138 inmates have been tested for the coronavirus, with nine testing positive. One of those inmates has died due to a pre-existing health condition. The other eight have recovered. Each person that has tested positive has been properly quarantined.

Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington briefed the group as well.

Washington said that more than $1 billion has been paid out in unemployment claims and that the department has processed 88 percent of COVID-19 related claims. Washington said that ADOL has paid out more in total benefits in the last three months than in the previous six years combined.

Washington said that unpaid claims are being looked at daily. Over 500,000 claims were filed in the last two months, more than the last two years combined.

Washington said that guidelines relating to issues such as “employees refusing to return to work when applicable” or “employee quits job instead of returning to work” may be addressed on the DOL website.

Washington warned that fraud claims and online scammers acting as ADOL online are happening and that citizens should be aware of such and report any fraudulent activity to ADOL immediately.

State Superintendent Dr. Erick Mackey addressed the group on the plans for the Alabama State Department of Education.

Mackey said that immediate guidance for reopening schools in June will soon be distributed. This would be for students in 7th grade and above. Students 6th grade and below will be able to attend school beginning in July.

Mackey said that the CDC guidelines that were released on Tuesday have not been adopted by ALSDE. Mackey said that some of these guidelines are not reasonable or doable in our state.

CDC issues new guidelines for schools reopening

“There are many moving parts to creating new procedures, etc., so please understand we are taking into consideration that not one size fits all,” Mackey said. “Our local schools will be making the final decisions as to what procedures are put in place for reopening.”

“We hope to issue recommendations to our schools by 19 June regarding reopening for the 2020-2021 school year,” Mackey told legislators. “We will be asking parents and students to implement new safety procedures, but these will be practical and easy to do.”

“We will leave the start date entirely up to each local superintendent,” Mackey continued. “We have asked that they assure they have time to prepare and adjust to the new procedures prior to opening.”

Mackey said that as of now, all school systems will be starting at some point in August. Distance learning for at-risk children is being looked at and there will be some sort of options for those needing this. Special Needs students needing therapies, etc. are also being looked at heavily.

“There are many moving parts to reopening, so we are working diligently to keep every student and every situation in mind,” Mackey said.

Later that afternoon, Ivey held a press conference to unveil the amended Safer At Home Order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. today. The new orders, which opens many more businesses, will be in effect through 3 July.

 

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Governor

Ainsworth applauds Ivey for opening more businesses

Brandon Moseley

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth released a statement applauding Thursday’s revised public health order that allows for the reopening of educational institutions, entertainment venues, youth sports, summer camps and other activities with proper enforcement of sanitation and social distancing

“I applaud Gov. Kay Ivey and State Public Health Officer Scott Harris for taking yet another step toward fully reopening businesses and putting Alabama’s economy back on the right track,” Ainsworth said. “After months of patient quarantining and with summertime fast approaching, reopening youth sports, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and other activities will provide both parents and children with much needed entertainment.”

“Allowing campuses to operate gives students of all ages the opportunity to resume their education and continue job training, which is especially important in this economic climate,” Ainsworth continued. “But all of this must be done with proper sanitation, social distancing, and safety measures firmly in place.”

“Now that the worst threat of COVID-19 is behind us, Alabama can more fully focus on restoring old jobs and creating new ones, helping small businesses thrive once again, and rebuilding history’s greatest economy even better than it was before,” Ainsworth concluded.

Trump national campaign committee member former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. similarly praised Ivey for her leadership and her decision to reopen more of the Alabama economy particularly athletic facilities on high school and junior high campuses for offseason football conditioning programs.

“We are very fortunate to have Donald J Trump as our Commander in Chief during this unprecedented time of crisis and Kay Ivey at the helm in Alabama,” Hooper said in a statement. “She showed true leadership once again today at her press conference. She is listening to her task force on re-opening Alabama and the states medical experts. She is developing a plan tailored to the unique needs of Alabama.”

“President Trump and Governor Ivey have worked hard to create the most dynamic economy in Alabama History,” Hooper continued. “We must have it up and running again as soon as possible in a safe responsible manner. I trust, and the President trusts, Kay Ivey to do just that.”

Hooper quoted President Calvin Coolidge: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” “This is as true today as it ever was,” Hooper said. “This is what makes the United States the greatest country in the World.”

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Ivey continues to caution Alabamians that it is safer for them to shelter in their homes whenever possible, especially for Alabamians who are susceptible to a bad outcome from the virus: older Americans, the obese, diabetics, those with asthma, those with heart conditions, and those who are immune-compromised. Protecting ourselves and others requires adherence to the social distancing protocols.

“It takes all of us being vigilant and adhering to the social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Ivey said in her press conference. “This disease is deadly and is not something to taken lightly. Things aren’t back to normal and frankly we do not know what the new normal looks like.”

“As we go back to work don’t forget we must continue to practice social distancing, refrain from hoarding food and other supplies, and continue to lend our fellow Alabamians a helping hand,” Hooper said. “Together we will make Alabama businesses and American made companies great again.”

96,363 Americans have perished since Feb. 27 due to COVID-19.

 

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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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