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Governor awards $30 million in CARES Act funds for COVID-19 testing, safety programs

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Governor Kay Ivey on Monday awarded $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) money to be used to establish COVID-19 testing and safety development programs. The state of Alabama will provide the $30 million to support two programs, Testing for Alabama and Stay Safe Together. The programs will be implemented by a coalition led by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 designated up to $250 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund to be used to support the delivery of health care and related services to citizens of Alabama.

“The agreement between the state of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Public Health and UAB is exactly the type of public-private partnership that is needed to adequately respond to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Governor Kay Ivey. “We will only be able to acquire critical, life-saving resources by working together. Living with the coronavirus is our ‘new normal,’ and I appreciate the combined efforts to ensure that as we get back to our daily routines, we can do so safely as well as helping our valued researchers gain new information to combat this disease.”

Testing for Alabama will create a consortium of entities, led by UAB, that will work with the Alabama Department of Public Health, to establish and support a broad, robust re-entry testing platform focused primarily of Alabama’s public institutions of higher education and two-year colleges. This will give all universities in the state a chance to set a baseline as students return, enabling institutions to better identify hotspots and potential COVID-19 problems on campuses through sentinel testing throughout the 2020-2021 school year.

Additional targeted testing will be implemented in certain underserved regions and locations in Alabama with identified health care disparities. Protocols for how testing will be administered are in progress with a nasal swab (not the nasopharyngeal swab) or a saline gargle test under development at UAB are eyed as potential options. Testing out-of-state students before they arrive on campuses is also a goal of the Testing for Alabama program.

“Our ability to test every student returning to campus will go a long way in helping us maintain a safe environment,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “We are excited that, through this partnership with Governor Ivey and the state of Alabama, we will have the ability to make testing available across our System and to public colleges and universities throughout the state. On behalf of UAB and the UA System, we thank Gov. Ivey for investing in this important program that will promote health across the state.”

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Stay Safe Together is a COVID-19 notification app currently being developed by UAB. The platform includes a COVID-19 assessment tool that allows individuals to log their coronavirus related health status and symptoms that is backed by Google and Apple technology that can anonymously alert someone if they are at risk from being in proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. This platform will be potentially available to all public institutions of higher education in the state, as well as all public K-12 schools in the state.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is going to continue at least into the fall and early winter, and the Alabama Department of Public Health wants to ensure we are doing everything we can to give our state the best opportunity to navigate the crisis as safely and effectively as possible,” said Scott Harris, state health officer and co-chair of Testing for Alabama. “This free testing opportunity for all public college students will enable our state universities to have their finger on the pulse of what the prevalence of this infection is among their student body as they return and, over time, gives them the ability to monitor any change.”

The exposure notification smartphone app is in development and anticipated to be ready in time for the fall semester.

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USDA is seeking rural energy grant applications

The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Bette Brand on Wednesday invited applications for loan guarantees and grants for renewable energy systems, and to make energy efficiency improvements, conduct energy audits and provide development assistance.

The funding is being provided through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which was created under the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized under the 2018 Farm Bill. This notice seeks applications for Fiscal Year 2021 funding.

The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.

REAP helps agricultural producers and rural small businesses reduce energy costs and consumption by purchasing and installing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements in their operations.

Eligible systems may derive energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, ocean, hydrogen, geothermal or renewable biomass (including anaerobic digesters).

USDA encourages applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to help improve life in rural America.

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Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments.

Key strategies include achieving e-Connectivity for rural America, developing the rural economy, harnessing technological innovation, supporting a rural workforce and improving quality of life. For additional information, see the notice in the Federal Register.

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Trump says that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin within two weeks

Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

President Donald Trump said Thursday that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin as early as next week.

“The whole world is suffering, and we are rounding the curve,” Trump said. “And the vaccines are being delivered next week or the week after.”

Trump made the announcement during a special Thanksgiving holiday message to U.S. troops overseas via teleconference. Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients. He also argued that his election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, should not be given credit for the vaccines, which were developed during the Trump administration.

Trump referred to the vaccines, which were developed and tested in less than ten months as a “medical miracle.”

Regulators at the FDA will review Pfizer’s request for an emergency use authorization for its vaccine developed with BioNTech during a meeting on Dec. 10. The director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research says a decision is expected within weeks, possibly days after that key meeting.

The latest trial data for Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine showed that it was 90 percent effective.

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The CDC plans to vote next week on where the distribution of approved vaccines will begin and who will be allowed to get the first vaccines when they become available.

Dr. Celene Gounder, a member of Biden’s COVID Advisory Board, warned against rushing a vaccine to market.

“The single biggest risk of rushing an approval would be Americans’ distrust the vaccine,” Grounder said. “It’s essential people feel confident this is a safe and effective vaccine.”

Moderna said that its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.

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AstraZeneca says its preliminary results showed its vaccine ranged from 62 percent to 90 percent effective depending on the dosage amount given to participants. AstraZeneca is having to launch a second round of global trials to clear up the discrepancies.

Many Americans appear to have ignored CDC warnings to scale back Thanksgiving holiday plans. More than six million Americans flew over the holiday week, raising fears by public health officials that the surge in coronavirus cases we are experiencing now will be followed by a bigger surge in the next three weeks.

As of press time, there have been 62 million diagnosed cases of coronavirus cases in the world, including nearly 13.5 million in the United States, but many cases are mild and go undiagnosed.

A CDC researcher estimates that the real number of infections in the U.S. has topped 53 million since February. More than 1.4 million people have died around the world since the virus first appeared in China late last year. The death toll includes 271,029 Americans and 3,572 Alabamians.

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The Iron Bowl is Saturday

Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Brandon Moseley

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The 2019 Iron Bowl (VIA ALABAMA FOOTBALL/UNIV. OF ALABAMA ATHLETICS)

The Auburn University college football team will play the University of Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday with the game kicking off at 2:30 p.m. Attendance is strictly limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. The game will be televised on CBS stations.

Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing mild symptoms. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will coach the Crimson Tide in Saban’s absence. He has a 46-35 record as a head coach at USC and Washington.

Auburn will be coached by Gus Malzahn, who has a 67-33 record as a head coach. He is the fifth winningest coach in Auburn history, trailing only Shug Jordan, Mike Donahue, Pat Dye and now-Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville.

Alabama has a 7-0 record and is currently the No. 1 team in the country in the college football rankings. Auburn is 5-2 but with a win could still win the SEC West with wins in its remaining two games, and if Alabama were to lose another game down the stretch. Alabama is just one game ahead of Texas A&M for first place in the SEC West, but the Tide has the tiebreaker by virtue of having defeated the Aggies in head-to-head competition.

In addition to team honors, there is a lot riding for individual players in today’s game. Alabama redshirt junior quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for 2,426 yards and 18 touchdowns in Alabama’s first seven games. Jones’s strong performance has made him a Heisman contender and has earned him consideration as a possible first-round or high second-round draft pick by the NFL if he were to leave Alabama early.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has thrown for 1,627 yards and ten touchdowns over seven games.

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Alabama and Auburn played their first football game against each other in Lakeview Park in Birmingham on Feb. 22, 1893. The game is called the Iron Bowl because historically the game was played on a neutral site: Birmingham’s historic Legion Field. Birmingham at the time was best known for the iron that was mined there and then made into steel and other metal products.

The game is now played as a home and home series, but the Iron Bowl name has stuck with the rivalry.

Alabama leads the series with 46 wins to Auburn’s 37. There has been one tie. Auburn defeated Alabama 48 to 45 in last year’s high scoring contest.

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Health

Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus

Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine. 

Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said. 

“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response. 

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval. 

“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations,  we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines. 

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In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain. 

“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily

While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill. 

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.

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“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.

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