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Gov. Kay Ivey’s coronavirus task force has met sparsely during pandemic

Ivey’s office says that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ivey and her staff have stayed in regular contact with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama Department of Public Health officials and other experts.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey held an Coronavirus update Press conference Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Over the last three months, Gov. Kay Ivey’s coronavirus task force has met by phone twice, and in that time the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases grew by 72,590 and confirmed coronavirus deaths grew by more than 500 percent.

Ivey also formed a coronavirus task force executive committee, which has met just three times, and met last on May 4.

But Ivey’s office says that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ivey and her staff have stayed in regular contact with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama Department of Public Health officials and other experts — and that the task force is just one of many avenues that Ivey and her staff use to discuss coronavirus and the state’s response.

“As we have seen throughout this pandemic, the governor has taken a thoughtful and measured approach, and she is adamant on doing so with the best possible information, even as we see data continuously changing during what are uncertain times,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary in a message to APR.

Ivey announced the formation of the 18-member task force on March 6, seven days before she declared a state of emergency over the threat COVID-19 posed to the state. At the time, Alabama hadn’t yet had its first confirmed case.

The task force held six teleconferences in March, four in April, one in May and one in June. It last met by phone on June 29, according to records of those meetings provided to APR by Ivey’s office through a records request.

On April 14, the governor announced the creation of the six-member executive committee, composed of members of the task force, which was charged with mulling recommendations on reversing some of Ivey’s restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus.

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The executive committee, chaired by the state’s finance director, Kelly Butler, met first in person, while observing social-distancing guidelines, on April 21, then held follow-up conference calls on April 30 and May 4, according to an Alabama Department of Finance spokeswoman. The executive committee hasn’t met by phone or otherwise since May 4.

“It’s more so updates,” said Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, House minority leader and a member of Ivey’s coronavirus task force, speaking to APR on Tuesday about the teleconference meetings.

Daniels said members would hear updates from Harris, the state health officer, and Dr. Don Williamson, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association, and others. Ivey would also ask for any comments from other members, Daniels said.

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He worries, however, that the state still isn’t doing what it can to mitigate the spread of the virus, which as of Wednesday has killed 1,489 people in Alabama. At least 36 percent of the deaths have been reported in July. The state’s COVID-19 daily hospitalizations hit another record on Monday, when Alabama’s supply of intensive care beds was also at its lowest point during the pandemic, and more coronavirus patients than ever were in those ICU beds.

Daniels pointed to an op-ed he wrote in late March that called for a stronger response to COVID-19 and laid out steps state leaders could take, but he said Tuesday that “I don’t know that we’ve focused on any of those things.”

In the op-ed, Daniels suggested the state expand Medicaid to help provide medical care to uninsured and low-income people, prepare to reopen some of the state’s 17 shuttered hospitals to care for COVID-19 patients and bolster the state’s supply of personal protective equipment, testing capacity and other needed supplies.

“The Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force that she established is one of the many avenues where she and our staff discuss the situation on hand, and it was particularly critical as we were in the beginning phases of this virus,” Maiola said in a message to APR on Monday. “Even in addition to meetings, information is shared.”

Maiola said after establishing the task force, and as Ivey and her office worked to “reopen the economy, she also established a select group of various individuals to serve on the Executive Committee.”

“Governor Ivey and our team receive daily updates from Dr. Harris and the Department of Public Health. The governor is also continuously receiving information from the hospitals, members of various industries, the White House and several other expert individuals and groups,” Maiola said.

Ivey also met in a closed-door meeting on July 15 with Dr. Deborah Birx, a key member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, along with the state health officer. After that meeting, the three joined in a roundtable discussion with 19 other physicians, state politicians, faith leaders and state and federal officials to discuss the state of COVID-19 in Alabama.

Press wasn’t allowed at the July 15 meeting or roundtable, and did not receive advance notice that Birx was coming to meet with Ivey and others, although Ivey’s office did issue a press release afterward stating that Birx believed it was a critical time for the South to slow the spread of the virus, and that Ivey’s decision to issue a statewide mask mandate was “brilliant.”

Daniels said he didn’t get an invitation to the meeting and was unaware Birx was coming to visit.

In subsequent visits to other states, Birx was made available for members of the press to ask questions.

In Tennessee on Monday, Birx held a press conference with Republican Gov. Bill Lee, in which she said that since that state was classified as being in the “red zone” in the White House Coronavrus Task Force’s weekly report “the number one bullet is mandate masks, close your bars, enhance social distancing.”

Birx made the same recommendation to close bars when she spoke in Virginia on July 28, telling reporters there that “it could really prevent Virginia from having the experience that our Southern states have had by starting mitigation efforts sooner rather than later.”

Alabama was, at the time of Birx’s meeting with Ivey, also classified in the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s weekly report as being in the “red zone,” according to The Center for Public Integrity, which published the document, which the White House had prepared but had not made public.

It was unclear Tuesday if Birx recommended that Alabama close its bars in the closed-door meeting with Ivey and Harris. A person who attended the roundtable discussion with Birx told APR they do not recall Birx making such a recommendation in that meeting, but that they’re uncertain if she made it when meeting privately with Ivey and Harris.

Asked if Birx recommended Alabama close its bars during her meetings with Ivey on July 15, the governor’s press secretary did not respond to the question in her reply to several questions.

The Alabama Department of Public Health, through a spokesman, declined to answer APR’s question as to whether Birx recommended to Harris and Ivey that the state close its bars.

Ryan Easterling, director of health media and communications at the Alabama Department of Public Health, in a response to APR on Thursday wrote that Harris and Ivey had a very productive meeting with Dr. Birx.

“She was terrific in answering technical questions with our laboratory and epidemiology staff,” Easterling said in his response, and then pointed the reporter to a two-paragraph press release on Birx’s visit.

Mac Gipson, the administrator of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, told board members at the start of a special meeting on Monday that Ivey’s office contacted the board last week — which would have been after her meeting with Birx — and said that one suggestion from Ivey’s advisers was to close bars, but that the board was tasked with coming up with a different solution.

Gipson said the original plan was to cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m. and require all alcohol sold to be consumed by 10:30 p.m., but numerous business owners said the 10 p.m. cutoff was too early.

“I contacted the State Health Officer and he thought it should be 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.,” Gipson said. Instead, the board voted 3-0 on Monday to cut off alcohol sales at 11 p.m.

Ivey on Wednesday extended her “safer-at-home” order, which includes a statewide order to wear face masks. Included in the requirement are all school employees and students in grades 2 through college.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Gov. Kay Ivey awards $100 million to state nursing homes, hospitals in fight against coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey held an Coronavirus update Press conference Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced the award of $100 million in coronavirus relief funds for grants to state nursing homes and hospitals to aid in the fight against COVID-19. 

“While there are many aspects of COVID-19 that we still don’t know, one thing that isn’t in dispute is our seniors and those with preexisting health conditions fair the worst when contracting the virus,” Ivey said in a statement. “Protecting our most vulnerable citizens remains a priority for my administration, and it is incumbent to ensure that our nursing homes and hospitals have every tool possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as well as keep their staff and health care professionals safe as they offer exceptional care to those who are ill.”

One of the two grant programs will provide up to $50 million to be used by Alabama nursing homes for personal protective equipment, cleaning, personnel costs and “other costs incurred related to the pandemic,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. 

The Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation will administer the funds, according to Ivey’s office. The non-profit previously received $18.27 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to pay for testing and proactive surveillance of COVID-19 for health care workers and nursing home residents. 

“On behalf of Alabama’s nursing homes, I thank Governor Ivey for her continued commitment to assisting the residents and staff in our facilities,” said Brandon Farmer, president of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, in a statement. “Our nursing homes continue to provide high quality, compassionate care despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. These funds will help cover the unexpected and ongoing costs we incur during this pandemic and allow us to focus on caring for those most vulnerable to this virus.”

The Alabama Hospital Association will administer up to $50 million through the other grant program to state hospitals, according to the release. 

“Despite unprecedented challenges and financial strains as a result of the pandemic, Alabama’s hospitals have continued to rise to the occasion in meeting the health care needs of our citizens,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, in a statement. “Our hospitals thank Governor Ivey and her administration for the continued support and financial assistance. This will go a long way to ensure hospitals are able to care for all patients who need hospital services and protect their employees while doing so.”  

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The two grant programs were funded from the approximately $1.9 billion the state received through the CARES Act. Up to $250 million of that money has been earmarked for the delivery of health care in the state’s battle with coronavirus.

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Judge dismisses lawsuit asking court to loosen voting restrictions amid COVID-19 pandemic

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Montgomery Circuit Court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit against Gov. Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill and several Montgomery County election officials that asked the court to expand Alabama’s absentee voting and relax other voting measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Montgomery Circuit Judge J.R. Gains in his order dismissing the suit wrote that the court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the plaintiff’s complaint because “Plaintiffs present a non-justiciable political question, Plaintiffs lack standing to sue Defendants, and the claims against Defendants are barred by sovereign immunity.” 

The League of Women Voters’ lawsuit asked Gains to order Ivey and Merrill to exercise emergency powers to waive the notary or witness requirement, the requirement to supply a copy of a photo ID and to extend no-excuse absentee voting into the fall. 

“COVID 19 is a very real threat, not only to voters’ physical health but also to the health of Alabama’s electoral process.  We are profoundly disappointed by the judge’s decision, which allows elections to proceed in their current state,” said League President Barbara Caddell in a statement Friday. 

“The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization whose mission is to empower voters and defend democracy. This case was filed to do just that. It was filed in the Alabama court system based on the Alabama Constitution and the Alabama Emergency Management Act which protect the right to vote in times of ‘tumult’ and give the Governor and the Secretary of State emergency power to protect citizens during emergencies. This pandemic certainly qualifies as ‘tumult’ requiring additional emergency assistance,” Caddell continued.

Caddell said that since the judge ruled he didn’t have the authority to require Ivey and Merrill to use their emergency powers, the league is appealing to Ivey for help, and detailed eight requests:

  • Suspend the requirement that a copy of the voter’s photo ID be included with the voter’s application for an absentee ballot
  • Suspend the requirement that the absentee ballot be notarized or signed by two witnesses;
  •  Provide adequate personal protective equipment for clerks and poll workers and disinfecting polling equipment;
  • Require in-person voters to wear masks and maintain social distancing;
  • Authorize local election officials to provide early voting at least fourteen days before each election day;
  • Authorize local election officials to provide drive-through or curbside voting where practicable, to establish vote centers and relax restrictions on wrong-precinct voting;
  • Provide local election officials the financial resources to implement these emergency measures; and
  • Adequately notify all Alabama voters of these emergency measures.  This includes either notifying voters that no box need be checked to vote absentee or modifying the absentee application and ballot forms to inform voters explicitly which boxes to check.

“In the past, Governor Ivey has demonstrated her concern for Alabamians in a variety of ways, and we encourage her to address our concerns for election safety by using her emergency power to order such common-sense voter protections,” the league said in their statement.

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Alabama coronavirus cases more than doubled in the last 30 days

The state has averaged 1,605 cases per day in the last 30 days. Thursday’s increase of 1,626 exceeded that average.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported an additional 1,626 coronavirus cases on Thursday after several days when new cases increased by less than 1,000 per day.

Through July 7, at least 45,263 Alabamians had contracted the coronavirus, but in the 30 days since, 48,139 more Alabamians have tested positive for the virus and more deaths have followed. The state has averaged 1,605 cases per day in the last 30 days. Thursday’s increase of 1,626 exceeded that average.

The state now has 93,402 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and that number is sure to rise as schools begin to reopen next week and children and teachers begin intermingling for the first time in 117 days.

Through July 7, at least 1,007 Alabamians died from COVID-19. In the last 30 days, another 647 Alabamians have died. That is an average of nearly 22 deaths per day. The Department of Public Health confirmed an additional 15 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday. The state’s death toll now stands at 1,654.

As of Wednesday, at least 1,575 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals statewide. Many hospitals have recently been or are currently near ICU bed capacity. Making matters worse for health care workers, 5,575 Alabama health care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

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At least 1,576 of those health care worker cases have come in just the last 30 days.

By Thursday, the state reported 736,594 tests, and 93,402 have been positive. That is nearly a 12.7 percent rate of positive tests since March. Public health officials say anything over 5 percent is bad and an indicator that there are many more people out there with the coronavirus that are not being detected.

In the last two weeks, though, at least 17.5 percent of tests have come back positive, based on 14-day averages of daily case and test increases. In the last week, that positivity rate has been nearly 17 percent.

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At least 37,923 Alabamians are presumed to have recovered.

Some states, including New York, are asking that visitors from Alabama quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival. GOP Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville was recently criticized in The Washington Post for defying Washington D.C.’s 14-day quarantine request for visitors from Alabama.

Not all of the news is bad. The seven and 14-day averages of daily case increases in the state have both been dropping since peaking around July 25. The cases, while dropping, are still well above what they were prior to July 13, and the positivity rate remains high.

The state remains under a “safer-at-home” order through the end of August, issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. If you do not have to leave your home, then do not leave your home. You are safer there.

If you are going to be around other people not in your household, you are required to wear a mask or cloth face covering. This includes school children returning to classes this month.

Remember to always socially distance. Stay six feet away from other people as much as possible. Don’t shake hands or hug people not actually living in your household.

If someone in your household is sick, isolate them from the rest of the family. If you or someone in your family have any sort of symptoms, get tested for the coronavirus. Remember to wash your hands frequently.

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Alabama nursing homes can’t use rapid COVID-19 test machines without federal guidance

In Alabama, there were 686 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities as of Wednesday, which was 42 percent of the state’s 1,639 COVID-19 deaths at that point.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Some Alabama nursing homes have received rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test machines, but without guidance from the federal agency that sent them, the machines aren’t being used.

It’s been three weeks since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in a nationwide conference call with nursing home administrators announced plans to disburse the machines, which can provide results in 15 minutes.

John Matson, director of communications for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told the Alabama Political Reporter on Wednesday that CMS has said it will send the rapid testing machines to 78 Alabama nursing homes to start, and eventually will supply one to each nursing home in the state. He said some of those 78 facilities have received them while some are still waiting for delivery.

“The biggest thing we’re waiting on from CMS is guidance on when and how it wants us to use these machines,” Matson said.

Matson said that CMS officials on the July 16 conference call said that regulations and guidance on the testing machines weren’t yet ready, but that the agency wanted to go ahead and disburse the machines.

“They wanted to distribute machines and then let the guidance and the regulations catch up,” Matson said.

The Trump administration touted the rapid tests machines’ ability to bolster testing in nursing homes, which care for older, sick people who are at most risk of serious complications and death due to coronavirus.

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As of July 30, 43 states reported 62,925 COVID-19 deaths, which was 44 percent of all coronavirus deaths in those states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Alabama, there were 686 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities as of Wednesday, which was 42 percent of the state’s 1,639 COVID-19 deaths at that point.

While nursing home administrators await those federal guidelines to be able to use the rapid test machines, it’s taking longer to get COVID-19 test results from many labs. Matson said some nursing homes are seeing wait times for results as long as a week, which public health experts say makes the results nearly worthless.

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“Not every nursing home is experiencing that, but we do know that some are experiencing a longer turnaround time,” Matson said.  “As we’ve said before, knowledge is key, and when we run those tests we need those tests results back in a timely manner so we know how to properly treat our patients and our employees.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health on July 31 said that as Alabama continues to see an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, it’s taking commercial labs and ADPH’s lab an average of seven days to get results.

ADPH in the release states that the lengthier turnaround time for test results is due to several factors, including supply chain problems with test reagents, more demand for coronavirus tests nationwide, “and in some cases, increased numbers of unnecessary tests.”

“I think it’s important to emphasize that that is essentially a worthless result,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious disease at UAB, during a press briefing July 30. “At that point, all it tells you is that six days ago you were negative.”

And there are problems with the rapid testing machine’s accuracy. CMS has said the machines have an error rate of between 15 and 20 percent, and that a negative test result on the machines shouldn’t be used to rule out a possible case.

“Negative results should generally be treated as presumptive, do not rule out SARS-CoV-2 infection and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions, including infection control decisions,” CMS said in a FAQ on the rapid test machines for nursing homes.

Matson said CMS told nursing homes that while a negative test result should be followed up with a subsequent lab test to be certain, a positive result on the rapid test machines very likely means the person has coronavirus.

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