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Alabama public health officials concerned about COVID-19 and Labor Day weekend

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s COVID-19 numbers have improved some since Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order, but with Labor Day just ahead, state health officials fear if the public lets its guard down there could be a surge similar to what the state saw in July.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking during a press briefing hosted by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Wednesday, said that he has seen some improvements recently, which he attributes to the statewide mask mandate.

Harris said since the mask order went into effect, there have been declines in new daily cases, in the percentage of tests that are positive and in the hospitalization of COVID-19 patients.

“And yet, at the same time, we’re not out of the woods,” Harris said. “We see some clouds on the horizon that could be a problem for us if people aren’t able to follow that guidance that we’ve been issuing for so long about distancing, about face coverings, about staying home when you’re sick.”

There have been outbreaks on college campuses, Harris said, and the percentage of tests that are positive on some of those campuses has risen in recent weeks, and with the Labor Day weekend ahead, there’s concern that gatherings could spark more outbreaks.

“We really don’t want Labor Day to be a replay of Independence Day or Memorial Day,” Harris said. “We don’t want September to look like July looked, because I just don’t know that our health care system would be able to tolerate that.”

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Coronavirus hospitalizations in Alabama spiked in July, causing several hospitals to begin dedicating beds for other patients to COVID-19 patients. ICU’s set up for coronavirus patients quickly filled, and COVID-19 deaths surged in July and remained high in early August.

“We set a new record for deaths in a day in late July, and we certainly don’t ever want to be anywhere near that again,” Harris said.

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“We need people to really pay attention, and be careful. If you’re a person who’s 65 or older and you get infected with this virus, there’s about a one in 10 chance you’re not going to survive,” Harris said. “One in 10, and believe me, that’s a serious statistic that we all need to be thinking about”

Harris stressed that Black Alabamians are dying from COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers, and said that while Black people make up about a quarter of the state’s population, and about a quarter of all infected with the disease, Black Alabamians make up 40 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths.

Answering a question about vaccine distribution, Harris said the department is working hard on a plan to roll out a vaccine — if and when one is ready for market. Numerous vaccines are undergoing clinical trials, he said, and there remain many questions that will need to be answered before a vaccine can be administered to the public.

“There are a lot of questions about whether a vaccine will be a one-shot or multiple-shot vaccine, how often it will need to be given again,” Harris said.

There likely won’t be enough doses of the vaccine for everyone at the start, so one big question is who is most vulnerable to the disease and who should receive a vaccine first, Harris said.

“So there’s a lot of details that still have to be worked out, but that’s a project that we’re working on actually every single day here at public health,” Harris said.

Harris was asked to address the fluctuating coronavirus tests and case numbers, which has become a common theme on the Alabama Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 data in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the department recorded just 86 new cases, but 537 new probable cases.

Harris said the department gets testing data from labs all over the state, and some outside the state, which are testing Alabama residents, and many of those labs have delays in sending in total tests administered, which can cause dips and jumps in the state’s daily data.

He said that’s what they rely more on seven- and 14-day rolling averages, which smooth out the data and gives a better picture of recent trends.

Additionally, more people are using rapid COVID-19 tests, called antigen tests, as opposed to the tests most often conducted in labs, called PCR tests. A positive result from a rapid test is still considered a case by the department, but it’s classified as “probable” as a way for public health experts to denote which test was administered.

“A probable case is not a case that we have less confidence in the diagnosis,” Harris said. “It’s simply a way that we count patients and make sure we’re comparing apples to apples from one state to the next.”

Jones said the U.S. Senate is to go back into session on Tuesday, and that it’s more important now than ever that lawmakers “work to find another bipartisan compromise on a round of meaningful COVID relief legislation as soon as we get back.”

“Since our emergency unemployment benefits have expired at the end of July bills have started to pile up for folks,” Jones said. “There’s an even stronger sense of urgency to get families the help that they need even more so than when I talked about that urgency in June and July.”

President Donald Trump’s order allowing for the partial extension of some of those additional unemployment benefits helped some, Jones said, but more is needed to help struggling individuals and small businesses.

“We’ve seen schools starting to open back up with no resources from the federal government. People are having to decide whether to pay rent or pay for medication. They’re having to choose between food and utilities, and that’s just unacceptable,” Jones said.

The CDC recently announced an order that will broaden eviction protections through the end of the year, if a renter meets certain requirements, but those renters will still owe all rent payments.

Asked by APR what can be done to help those who may face eviction at the start of 2021 if they can’t make those payments, Jones said those who have the ability to pay rent need to do so to avoid owing a lump sum or face eviction, but that the federal government needs to step in and provide aid to both renters and landlords.

“We should have been addressing this crisis, this problem, back in early summer when we knew what was coming,” Jones said, referring to Washington lawmakers’ inability to pass such legislation.

“I think the federal government is going to have to step in to help both renters as well as the landlords. It’s just that simple,” Jones said. “I believe the federal government is the only entity that can do that right now.”

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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