Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has extended the ability of voters to vote absentee if they’re concerned about COVID-19 through the Nov. 3 general election.
Merrill’s decision puts to rest questions as to whether the emergency measure, enacted prior to the Republican Runoff last Tuesday, would be extended to cover other upcoming municipal elections on August 25 and the general election on November 3.
Coronavirus is far from under control in Alabama, where over the last week the state has seen continued record-breaking new daily cases and hospitalizations.
“It was unforeseen that the Governor’s original state of emergency would be extended and that the coronavirus pandemic would continue in Alabama, thus necessitating the need for an emergency absentee rule for the General Election on November 3, 2020,” reads the certification of emergency rules signed by Merrill on Friday.
Merrill in a press release Monday announced the decision to extend the emergency measure.
“Amid coronavirus concerns, it is important to remember that Alabamians who are concerned about contracting or spreading an illness have the opportunity to avoid the polls on Election Day by casting an absentee ballot,” Merrill said.
Voters can also call the Secretary of State’s Office at 334-242-7210 to request an absentee ballot application.
Alabama voters will still have to follow witness, notary and photo ID requirements for absentee ballots, however, after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month blocked a federal district judge’s order that would have eased burdens on state voters amid surging coronavirus cases.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 approved, in part, a preliminary injunction filed by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.
Those groups sued Gov. Kay Ivey and Merrill and seek to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs also asked the court to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and that witnesses sign absentee ballot requests.
Anyone wishing to vote by absentee ballot may check the box on an absentee ballot request for that reads “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls. [ID REQUIRED]”
“As COVID-19 infections rise, Secretary Merrill’s emergency order is a huge victory for Alabama voters who do not wish to risk their health at the polls this year,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, in a statement Monday. “Still in place, however, are a curbside voting ban and absentee ballot requirements that demand voters violate social distancing with zero benefit to the integrity of elections. We will continue toward trial to ensure that no eligible Alabama voter has to choose between protecting their health and health of their families and exercising their fundamental right to vote.”
“With the continued rise of COVID-19 cases in Alabama, we are relieved that the vast majority of voters will have the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot,” said Bill Van der Pol, senior trial counsel at ADAP. “However, we remain concerned for those with disabilities who will have significantly more difficulty meeting the witness and photo requirements that the state continues to require. We look forward to addressing these issues in trial.”
The deadline to register to vote in the Aug. 25 municipal elections is Monday, Aug. 10, and the deadline to submit an absentee ballot application is Thursday, Aug. 20, and the deadline to hand-deliver an absentee ballot is the close of business Monday, Aug. 24.
If an absentee ballot is returned by mail, it must be postmarked by Aug. 24 and received by noon on Aug. 25. If necessary, runoff elections will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 6.
The voter registration deadline for the November general election is Oct. 19, and the last day to apply for an absentee ballot for the general election is Oct. 29. The last day to hand-delivery or postmark an absentee ballot is Nov. 2.
Jefferson County health officer, UAB head say COVID-19 numbers are improving but flu season is near
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said Friday that the county’s COVID-19 numbers are improving, but with schools reopening and flu season approaching, it’s critical for the public to continue wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Wilson and Will Ferniany, the CEO of the UAB Health System, held a press briefing on Friday to discuss the state of coronavirus and what’s being done to mitigate the disease that has killed 1,825 people in Alabama and infected 102,196.
In the last few weeks, the number of new daily COVID-19 cases and the percent of tests that are positive in Jefferson County has begun to decline, Wilson told reporters, but he put that decline into perspective.
“Keep in mind though that this is a slight improvement from being at a pretty bad place with really high numbers, so we still have a long way to go,” Wilson said.
There have been 13,682 confirmed coronavirus cases and 262 deaths in Jefferson County as of Friday, and 939 cases were added within the last week. The county’s seven-day average of new daily cases fell from its peak of 295 on July 18 to 156 on Thursday.
Wilson said there is good evidence that the county’s face covering order is making a difference in the spread of the disease, and that he thanks the public for making that difference, and asked that they keep doing so.
“We have four levels of surge,” Ferniany said, referring to UAB Hospital’s process of temporarily adding hospital bed capacity for COVID-19 patients by removing beds from other areas. “We’re on level two capacity.”
Ferniany said the hospital is running at 90 percent capacity, which he said is a “very full hospital” and that between March and around July 20, the hospital was caring for between 60 and 70 coronavirus patients daily, and reached a peak of 130 patients a little more than a week ago.
“Today we’re at 97 patients in-house, and roughly 40 percent are in the ICU,” Ferniany said.
Ferniany said the hospital’s ability to care for COVID-19 patients is now limited by the numbers of nurses and other staff, and that UAB is “down several hundred nurses” and burnout from long periods of caring for coronavirus patients is common.
Both Ferniany and Wilson said they’re very concerned about the upcoming flu season and the impact it could have on hospital capacity, as physicians continue to care for COVID-19 patients.
“The 2018-2019 flu season was the worst flu season we have seen in 40 years, and we actually asked the governor back then to declare a state of emergency because our hospitals were full then with influenza,” Wilson said.
Wilson urged the public to get their annual flu shots once available on Sept. 1 to help prevent additional strain on hospitals statewide. Public health officials worry that the combination of flu and COVID-19 could be difficult to handle — both on a system-wide level and the level of an individual person.
“We have no reason to think that somebody can’t get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which could be a deadly combination,” Wilson said.
Wilson said while he isn’t certain what Gov. Kay Ivey may decide about the statewide mask order, but “in Jefferson County, it’s very likely I’m going to be pushing to continue face coverings through the flu season,” Wilson said.
Wilson in July advised school superintendents in Jefferson County that middle and high school students should attend school virtually only for the first nine weeks, a stronger recommendation than most superintendents elsewhere have received.
Wilson told reporters Friday that his recommendation for virtual-only classes to start was done to keep kids, teachers, staff and families safe.
“We’re probably going to have some cases. It’s inevitable, but what we want to do is everything we can as kids go back to school to reduce the spread within school so that schools can stay open.”
There are also preliminary plans for a new testing site for children as schools reopen, Wilson said, but those plans continue to be developed.
Ferniany said UAB Hospital on Thursday got initial approval from the hospital’s board to expand COVID-19 testing capacity.
“Our goal is to try to expand it significantly by the end of December. We probably can’t get it up faster than that, but this pandemic is not going away by the end of December so I think we will have a significant increase in our ability to have rapid tests in place by the end of this year,” Ferniany said.
Seventeenth Alabama inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19
William Edward King, 65, is the 17th Alabama inmate to die after testing positive for COVID-19.
King tested positive for COVID-19 on June 1 at a local hospital, where he was being treated for an end-stage preexisting medical condition, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced on Thursday.
King’s condition improved, and he was released, but his health worsened, and he was returned to the hospital on July 26. He was discharged from the hospital on Aug. 11 and was taken to a hospice care area inside the Kilby Correctional Facility, where he died later that day.
Six more inmates and another staff member have also tested positive for COVID-19, ADOC said Thursday.
There have been 296 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 340 self-reported cases among prison staff. Two prison workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women have died after testing positive for COVID-19.
Internal report on Alabama inmate’s death backs statements by concerned whistleblowers
Almost all of the information in the report has already been published through APR’s own independent reporting on McMillian’s death, and the report corroborates much of APR’s reporting.
Many of the allegations made by concerned workers at an Alabama prison about the death of an inmate were corroborated in a report filed by an officer who was involved in the incident.
Darnell McMillian, 38, was on suicide watch when he died on June 22 after correctional officers placed him in a cell with another inmate, Demetris Eatmon, who was also on suicide watch. Statements by the two workers and a narrative in the report shed light on what happened in the moments before and after McMillian’s death.
According to the workers’ statements and the Alabama Department of Corrections internal report, once McMillian was placed in the cell with the other man, a fight ensued and officers used pepper spray to break it up. While the report notes two cans were used, one of the workers said three cans were sprayed into the cell, and the excessive amount may have resulted in his death.
The two Alabama Department of Corrections workers spoke separately to APR with concerns about McMillian’s death — one by phone on July 1 and another worker on July 9. Each said they had worked with both of the inmates and the officers involved, and all knew that the other inmate who fought with McMillian was violent and that no other inmates were to be placed in his cell.
“Eatmon is a very volatile inmate. Very violent. Very big guy,” one of the workers told APR. “You never put anybody in the cell with him.”
One of the workers told APR previously that once the two inmates were in the cell together, they were enticed by the officers to fight, and that while they were uncertain of why they did so in this instance, such tactics are used by officers regularly when an inmate angers them, the person said.
Demetris Eatmon of Midfield pleaded guilty and is serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder and robbery for an incident on January 12, 2004, in which he shot a man, according to court records. The duty officer report on McMillian’s death lists Eatmon as a member of the Black Gangster Disciple gang, and McMillian as a member of the Imperial Gangster Disciple gang.
The lieutenant and three correctional officers who were involved in the incident all were assigned to work the mental health area of the prison, all knew the inmates well and all knew that no one else was to be placed in a cell with the other inmate, both workers said. The captain who was involved in the incident had just recently been promoted and may not have been aware, however, one worker said.
According to the duty officer report, which was completed by one of the officers involved in the incident, McMillian started hitting the other inmate while the officer was attempting to take handcuffs off the other inmate through a tray slot in the cell door. The other inmate broke free with one handcuff still attached and the two began fighting, according to the report and statements to APR by the employees.
APR isn’t naming the officers or other ADOC employees involved with the incident, as there have been no criminal charges filed against any of them.
The worker who spoke to APR on July 1 said officers sprayed three cans of pepper spray into the cell, an excessive amount that may have killed him.
The worker said sometime around 6 p.m. on June 22, three correctional officers placed McMillian into the cell with Eatmon, who was known to be violent. The duty officer report notes he was placed into the cell close to 6:15 p.m. that day.
The first worker to speak to APR in July said that officers enticed the two men to fight, and once Eatmon began threatening McMillian, McMillian took the first swing. The report also notes that McMillian swung first, while the other inmate was still partially handcuffed.
One officer “drew his Aerosol Deterrent Spray, Sabre Red can #6099417” and sprayed several bursts into the cell and ordered them to stop fighting, according to the report, which states that a separate officer “retrieved the Sabre Red Cell Buster from the cube and administered a burst into the cell, with more verbal orders to stop fighting. Both inmates then complied.” The cube is a secure area for officers located in the center of the cell blocks.
“The inmate was yelling that he couldn’t breathe,” the employee told APR on July 1 referring to McMillian.
The other inmate was taken to the infirmary, decontaminated and released back to ADOC custody by a nurse, the report states.
McMillian was taken to the infirmary in a wheelchair at around 6:25 p.m., according to the report, where a nurse “observed that inmate McMillian was non-verbal and unresponsive” and three nurses “began administering CPR and utilizing the Automatic External (sic) Difibulator.”
The report states that the prison’s warden was notified and arrived at the prison at 7 p.m. About 35 minutes later, paramedics arrived, and at 7:49 p.m. called a UAB doctor who pronounced McMillian dead.
The first officer to have sprayed pepper spray into the cell then “secured cell S-11 with tape and the triage room in the Infirmary. Pictures were taken of S-11 and the triage room,” according to the report.
The worker who spoke to APR on July 1 said that before photos were taken, officers had inmates clean the cell of everything except for several spots of blood, which the worker said might make it appear to have been a homicide by the other inmate.”
Jefferson County Coroner Bill Yates told APR in July that McMillian’s final cause of death awaits toxicology and other lab results, which can take between four and six weeks, but that there did not appear to be any external injuries that could have caused his death.
“From our autopsy, I don’t believe we found any type of trauma that would explain death,” Yates said at the time.
The duty officer report notes the incident as “Death – Inmate-on-Inmate.”
ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR on Aug. 7 said that the investigation into McMillian’s death is ongoing, and therefore the department cannot comment on the matter. Rose verified the duty officer report as authentic but said that it doesn’t tell the whole picture.
“Please note this file represents an initial reporting of the incident and does not include nor is reflective of information gathered during the course of the ADOC’s ongoing investigation into Darnell McMillian’s death,” Rose said.
Rose also cautioned APR against publishing the report, saying that doing so could jeopardize the investigation.
“The information not only was unethically provided to you, it was provided in violation of the law. The disclosure of this protected information compromises the integrity of our active investigation, and we strongly advise you to consider the consequences of publishing it,” Rose said.
APR decided to publish the report in redacted form for several reasons. Almost all of the information in the report has already been published through APR’s own independent reporting on McMillian’s death, and the report corroborates much of APR’s reporting.
Additionally, in a report released July 23 by the U.S. Department of Justice on the excessive uses of force against inmates by Alabama correctional officers, investigators note systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up.
“These uses of excessive force — which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking — often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death,” the report found.
Federal investigators also noted that despite a large number of use-of-force incidents, a small fraction are investigated above the prison-level and sent to ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence division.
APR also decided to publish the redacted report because it sheds more light on what those federal investigators said were inappropriate uses of pepper spray on inmates, and instances of officers ignoring ADOC’s policies on the use of pepper spray.
“Chemical spray is regularly used as retribution. These kinds of applications of chemical agents violate the Constitution,” the report reads.
More than 100,000 Alabamians have contracted the coronavirus
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported an additional 875 positive cases of the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, in Alabama, bringing the total number of infections since March to more than 100,000. The number of known cases in the state has reached 100,801. More than half of those cases — 52,213 cases — have been diagnosed since July 10.
Wednesday brought even more grim news with 33 Alabamians confirmed dead from COVID-19. Wednesday’s report takes the state’s death toll to 1,814. Nearly half of the total death toll has come since June 30. At least 325 Alabamians have died in the last two weeks alone.
The counties with the most deaths are Jefferson with 261 deaths, Mobile with 216, Montgomery with 153, Tuscaloosa with 80, Tallapoosa with 79, Walker with 65, Lee with 47, Elmore with 39 and Chambers and Marshall with 38 each.
At least one death has been reported in every one of Alabama’s 67 counties.
The number of new cases per day has continued to drop since mid-July. The seven-day average is at 1,289 after peaking at 1,851 on July 19. This is in keeping with the national trend. Through Tuesday, nationally, the number of new coronavirus cases has dropped 12 percent and deaths have dropped 7 percent in the past week from the previous week.
At least 1,504 Americans were reported dead from COVID-19 on Tuesday, taking the national COVID-19 death toll from the pandemic to 167,749. According to CBS News, one-quarter of all American COVID-19 deaths are related to nursing homes.
“Seniors and folks with disabilities are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama. “The next relief bill needs to include funding to support nursing homes, long-term care facilities and home- and community-based services. No one should be left behind during a public health crisis.”
There have been at least 4,442 coronavirus cases confirmed among Alabamians living in long-term care facilities. 2,368 cases have been diagnosed among long-term care workers.
The heavy number of cases has continued to lead to high numbers of hospitalizations in the state. At least 1,372 Alabamians are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, though that number, too, is down from recent highs.
Of the 100,801 cases thus far in the state, 41,523 have recovered from their illness. Excluding those who have died, that leaves at least 57,464 Alabamians with coronavirus cases still considered active. There are likely thousands more that have contracted the virus and may not know it. A significant portion of people infected with the coronavirus is asymptomatic.
The high number of coronavirus cases in the South has led the Southeastern Conference to shorten the football season from 12 to 10 games and postpone the start of the season from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26. The Big 10, Pac 12, Ivey League, MAC, Mountain West and SWAC have all moved fall sports to the spring because of the continued coronavirus threat.
The entire state of Alabama remains under a “safer-at-home” order that includes the mandatory wearing of masks or cloth face coverings whenever you are around persons not from your household. If you can stay at home, stay at home. It will protect you and others.
Public health authorities warn Alabamians to socially distance. Avoid large gatherings, do not shake hands or hug people from outside of your household. If someone in your household is sick, isolate them from the rest of the family within the home. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid touching your face.