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Jefferson County health officer, UAB head say COVID-19 numbers are improving but flu season is near

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Mark 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

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. 

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“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. 

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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.

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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Education

New website for state resources for children, families launches

The website provides access to all the state’s resources for children and their families, including child care, education, family services and health services.

Eddie Burkhalter

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A screengrab of the Alabama Family Central website.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the creation of a centralized website for the state’s social service programs and services for children and families. 

Alabama Family Central was created through a $500,000 allocation by the state Legislature from the state’s Education Trust Fund budget and provides access to all the state’s resources for children and their families, including child care, education, family services and health services, according to Ivey’s office. 

“Alabama Family Central will ensure that all parents and children in our state have access to crucial information and resources from numerous state agencies and non-profit organizations,” Ivey said in a statement. “Great parents need strong partners, and I am proud of the strong collaboration between the state and private sector to offer a one-stop shop of assistance for Alabama families. I appreciate the Alabama Partnership for Children spearheading this effort.”

In addition to pointing visitors to state programs and services, the website also points families who are undertaking remote school learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic to A+ Education Partnership, which advocates for quality education in Alabama.

The state website specifically directs visitors to a page that provides COVID-19 resources for parents, including sections on guidance and decision-making, supporting learning from home and coping and well-being. 

“When I learned that our students would be learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my heart immediately went out to the parents who would need assistance teaching their children at home,” said State Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, in a statement. “I requested funding to set up such assistance, so I humbly thank Governor Kay Ivey and Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, for granting that request. It was a pleasure working with A+ Education Partnership and the Alabama Partnership for Children to incorporate this idea into their programs, and I look forward to its expansion. Every child deserves access to the highest quality education, no matter their circumstances.”

The Alabama Family Central website includes:

  • A+ Education Partnership
  • Alabama Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention
  • Alabama Department of Early Education
  • Alabama Department of Education
  • Alabama Department of Human Resources
  • Alabama Department of Mental Health
  • Alabama Department of Public Health
  • Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services
  • Alabama Medicaid

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Health

1 in 3 parents don’t plan to vaccinate their kids against flu even amid COVID-19

Health care experts nationwide and in Alabama in recent weeks have highlighted the importance of flu vaccines, especially this year.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

One in three parents don’t plan to have their children vaccinated for the flu this year despite health experts’ pleas that doing so could help prevent an overrun of U.S. hospitals as COVID-19 continues to spread and may spike as the weather turns colder, according to a poll released Monday. 

Two-thirds of parents polled also don’t think it’s more important to get their children vaccinated for the flu this year than it was last year, according to the national poll by C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital with the University of Michigan Medical School. 

Among parents who said they wouldn’t get their children vaccinated this year, one in seven said they wouldn’t do so because they wanted to keep their children away from health care facilities over concerns about COVID-19, according to the study, which also found that less than half the parents said their regular health care provider strongly recommended flu vaccines this year. 

Health care experts nationwide and in Alabama in recent weeks have urged the public to get flu vaccines this year, both to protect themselves from possible severe health outcomes and to prevent stressing hospitals that continue to care for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Erin DeLaney, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at UAB’s School of Medicine, told reporters last week that she encouraged everyone to get a flu vaccine as soon as possible. 

“We know that there are other respiratory pathogens that together, combined with the influenza virus, can have poor outcomes,” DeLaney said. “And we know that the flu and COVID separately can have poor outcomes, so we’re hoping to protect as many people as we can.” 

Researchers polled 1,992 parents nationwide during August who had at least one child aged 2-18. 

“Public health experts have emphasized the particular importance of flu vaccination during the COVID pandemic as a tool to limit the stress on health care systems. This includes reducing the number of influenza-related hospitalizations and doctor visits, and decreasing the need for diagnostic tests to distinguish influenza from COVID,” the report reads. “Children should get flu vaccine to protect themselves and to prevent the spread of influenza to family members and others.” 

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The U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, with 204,033 deaths due to the disease as of Sunday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Alabama, 2,501 people have died from COVID-19, and there have been 152,321 confirmed cases of the disease statewide since the start of the pandemic. Alabama currently has the eighth-most active COVID-19 cases in the United States at 85,899 cases.

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Health

Country star Amanda Shires to donate funds from single to Yellowhammer Fund

Eddie Burkhalter

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(PHOTO VIA AMANDA SHIRES/FACEBOOK)

Grammy-winning country musician Amanda Shires will donate all proceeds from a new single to the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that provides assistance with abortions in Alabama. 

Shires and her musician husband, Jason Isbell, partnered on the single “The Problem,” which is set to be released Sept. 28, according to a press release from the Yellowhammer Fund.

The song can be purchased here

“‘The Problem’ is a song that showcases what loving support looks like through what is often an emotional time,” Shires said in a statement. “The Yellowhammer Fund offers a similar type of support to Alabamians and the Deep South. The fund provides safe options for people in a segment of America where reproductive health is very often at high risk of government interference. Everyone has the freedom to choose how to care for their own body. Individual health care decisions are difficult enough without the added pressure of stigma and ever-changing legal hurdles.”

Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of Yellowhammer Fund, said the nonprofit is thankful for Shires help, which comes at a critical time. 

“Here in the Deep South, abortion is already incredibly difficult to access, even before a new president is elected or another Supreme Court Justice is appointed,” Roberts said in a statement. “As a fellow southerner, Shires understands those difficulties as well as the negative stigma surrounding abortion. We are thankful that she wrote this song and is telling a story that’s rarely heard.”

“It feels natural to align this song with The Yellowhammer Fund,” Shires said. “Having someone in your corner, offering unconditional support when you’re making hard choices is invaluable. Together, I know we can help make a difference.”

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Roberts said at this point the best actions we can take are to go vote, donate to a local abortion fund, and stay active in the fight for reproductive justice. 

“Our abortion rights are always on the line — regardless of who is in office — and we must continue the battle to expand access to everyone, no matter what rulings or laws may be in our future,” Roberts said.

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Governor

Coronavirus task force’s Dr. Deborah Birx says Alabama should extend statewide mask order

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, met with Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris Thursday.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said Thursday that Gov. Kay Ivey should extend her statewide mask order, set to expire on Oct. 2. She also responded to a CNN report that cited those close to her as saying she’s “distressed” with the direction the White House coronavirus task force is taking and is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role in the group. 

Birx, speaking at Auburn University, said she met with Ivey and Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris earlier in the day to discuss COVID-19 and how the state is responding.

“So we really talked about the importance of continuing mitigation,” Birx said of her talk with Ivey and state officials earlier on Thursday, adding that Ivey was one of the first governors in the South to enact a statewide mask mandate, which she said clearly decreased the spread of the disease.

Birx pointed to numbers, such as the test positivity rate, that have improved since July, but said “we’ve got to do even more.” Asked if the statewide mask mandate was one of the mitigation efforts she suggests continuing into the fall, Birx said she does. “Because if you look at what happened within two weeks of the mask mandate you can see the dramatic decline in cases here in Alabama,” Birx said. 

Birx said that when she last visited Alabama in July, the state was suffering from too many new cases of COVID-19. 

“I think when I was last here at the beginning of July, it was a very difficult time in general for Alabama. We saw nearly 95 to 100 percent of every county in Alabama, rural or urban, that had more than 10 percent test positivity to COVID-19,” Birx said, adding that today, around 20 percent of the state’s counties have positivity rates above 10 percent. 

Public health experts believe positivity rates above 5 percent mean that there isn’t enough COVID-19 testing being done and cases are likely going undetected. 

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In a statement to APR on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Ivey said Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris would provide an update on the statewide mask order ahead of its Oct. 2 expiration date. 

“It is evident that Alabamians are doing considerably well in modifying their behaviors to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and we all remain optimistic that a successful vaccine will be coming soon,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, in a statement to APR on Thursday. “Our state’s success is largely in part to Alabamians stepping up to the plate when it comes to cooperating with the mask ordinance.” 

Maiola said Ivey is leading the way on several fronts “including getting students and teachers back in the classroom, college students returning to campus and businesses remaining open — in fact, Alabama has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates.” 

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“This success is a reality because Alabamians are wearing their masks and maintaining social distancing precautions. Governor Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris will continue closely monitoring our progress and provide an update ahead of the October 2nd expiration,” Maiola continued. 

Speaking to reporters at Auburn, Birx was also asked about a CNN report on Wednesday that cited sources close to Birx as saying she is unhappy with what she sees as her diminished role on the White House coronavirus task force, that she’s not certain how long she can serve in her position and that she is “distressed” with the direction the task force is taking. 

CNN also reported that Birx, who is no longer a fixture at White House coronavirus briefings, views Dr. Scott Atlas, a recent addition to the task force, as an unhealthy influence on President Donald Trump.

Atlas, a neuroradiologist with little experience in public health or epidemiology, has expressed support for the so-called herd immunity “strategy,” which infectious disease expert roundly dismiss as unattainable and a move that would cost millions more lives.  

Instead of being a regular presence at White House coronavirus briefings, Birx has spent recent months traveling the country and speaking with governors and university administrators about coronavirus. 

Asked Thursday about CNN’s reporting, Birx pushed back. 

“Because they wrote that without even speaking to me,” Birx said. “Do I look like a person that’s diminished?” 

CNN reported Wednesday that Birx had not responded to requests for comment on the story. 

“Yes, I have been on the road. I’ve been on the road not as a spokesperson, but on the road to really understand what’s happening across the country, to be in deep dialogue with mayors, with communities, with governors, with administration school and faculty,” Birx said. 

“I’m asked here because I am supposed to be here,” Birx said. “I haven’t been in Washington, and nor was I asked about that, but I’ve actually never been called diminished.” 

Asked if she was planning to leave the task force, Birx said, “I have strong tenacity, and I’m very resilient, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s affecting Americans, and as an American, I think I can do the best service to my country right now by serving in this role, working across the agencies, because that’s the experience that I have.” 

Asked to clarify whether she planned to step down from the task force, Birx said “no.” 

Asked if she was distressed about the direction the task force is taking, Birx said, “well that would be on me, if I was distressed, right, because I’m supposed to be coordinating the groups.” 

“So that would be an indication that I’m not doing my job, and I believe that I do my job pretty well every day. I can always learn to do better,” Birx said.

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