A federal judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a case challenging aspects of Alabama’s voting requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Wednesday ruling orders the principal defendant in the lawsuit, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, to allow curbside voting, in the counties that choose to do so, but only for the Nov. 3 general election. The judge’s rulings pertain solely to the Nov. 3 election.
Kallon also ordered the state to do away with the requirement for voters to have two witnesses or a notary sign their absentee ballot, if the voter submits a statement that they have an underlying medical condition that puts them at a heightened risk from COVID-19 and thus, they cannot safely get those additional signatures.
In addition, Kallon ruled that voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition won’t need to submit a copy of a photo ID with their absentee ballot, so long as the voter provides other identifying information, such as their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number.
In his 197-page ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”
“That is for three reasons,” the judge continued. “First, because the Challenged Provisions only marginally advance the State’s interests in maintaining them while significantly burdening the right to vote, all three provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments during the pandemic.”
“Second, because the photo ID requirement and the de facto curbside voting ban make voting inaccessible for voters with disabilities, both those provisions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act during the pandemic. Finally, because the witness requirement interacts with Alabama’s history of discriminating against Black citizens to deny Black voters’ their right to vote, that provision violates the Voting Rights Act during the pandemic.”
The lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, was brought on behalf of several Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.
“This decision is a huge win for Alabama voters, especially voters of color and voters with disabilities,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel at LDF, in a statement. “Given COVID-19, Alabama’s draconian voting rules needlessly place the health and voting rights of Alabamians in danger. No one should be forced to risk their safety to exercise their constitutional right. State and local election officials have a responsibility to ensure that voting is easy and accessible for everyone in the pandemic.”
Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, applauded Wednesday’s decision.
“Today’s decision provides crucial relief in Alabama’s absentee voting process, allows for curbside voting in counties that wish to provide it, and ultimately will create a better public health situation in Alabama as it conducts an historic election,” Short said. “We’re deeply hopeful that the secretary of state and county election officials will accept the court’s ruling and begin educating Alabama voters on how they can vote safely and easily for the general election.”
“This ruling recognizes the hardships these laws place on Black Alabamians and those at particular risk for COVID-19. This decision will help to ease those burdens in the midst of this deadly pandemic,” said Davin Rosborough, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Merrill, in a statement to APR after the ruling, said he plans to appeal the verdict, which he likened to “judicial activism.”
“I am extremely disappointed in today’s ruling in the case of People First of Alabama v. Merrill relating to the November 3 General Election. Judge Kallon’s ruling to disallow the Secretary of State from prohibiting an illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting’ undermines the integrity of the elections process and the ability for Alabamians to cast a secret ballot as the chain of custody is then broken,” Merrill said. “It is important to remember that counties are in no way required to offer the illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting.”
Kallon in his ruling noted that “No provision of Alabama law expressly prohibits curbside or drive” but that there’s also no provision in state law allowing for the practice, and that Merrill then believes curbside voting to be illegal. Kallon also wrote that several states do allow for curbside voting, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends states allow curbside voting to comply with social distancing rules and in limiting personal contact during in-person voting.
“In addition, the photo ID and witness requirement components are necessary deterrents for those wishing to illegally influence elections,” Merrill continued. “We look forward to successfully appealing this decision as we continue fighting for safe and secure elections – free from voter fraud and judicial activism.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement said he will ask for an appeal of Kallon’s verdict.
“Back in June, the district court in this case enjoined these important protections for the primary runoff. But the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, staying that injunction and allowing the State to enforce its laws. We will ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to do the same again,” Marshall said. “Voting began weeks ago. And every Alabama voter is entitled to vote under the same laws, not new ones written by a federal court in the middle of voting.”
Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations surpass 1,000 for first time since August
The 1,001 patients in hospitals with COVID-19 on Tuesday is a 34 percent increase from a month ago.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.
The 1,001 patients in hospitals with COVID-19 on Tuesday is a 34 percent increase from a month ago, and the seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations by day Tuesday was 917, a 21 percent increase from Sept. 27.
“Unfortunately, not surprised but frankly, depressed by our trends,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and Alabama’s former state health officer, speaking to APR on Tuesday.
Work is under way to help hospitals prepare for another surge, ensuring there’s enough of therapies like Remdesivir, ventilators and personal protective equipment are in place, Williamson said.
Alabama on Monday had just 16 percent of the state’s ICU beds available, and since the start of the pandemic, with a few exceptions, Alabama hospitals have had less than 20 percent ICU availability, Williamson said. During the state’s last peak in mid-July, coronavirus patients were using 445 ICU beds, he said, and by Sept, 20 that had dropped to 274, where it hovered ever since.
On Monday, 292 COVID-19 patients were in ICUs, Williamson said.
Williamson said at the state’s worst point during July, Alabama had just 109 ICU beds available but that “the problem wasn’t beds. It was staff.” Without staff to care for the patients, empty ICU beds would do a patient no good.
A nurse can typically care for up to six patients, but only three or four COVID-19 patients, who require extra care, Williamson said. And there’s concern that fatigue among hospital staff will again become a challenge.
“You’re seeing it nationally now, in folks who are going through this second wave. Staff are just exhausted because they’ve seen it before. They know how somehow this is going to turn out for a significant number of patients,” Williamson said. “And part of it is just the incredible frustration that a lot of this was preventable.
As treatment options and the knowledge of how to better care for COVID-19 patients have improved, fewer coronavirus patients are taking up those ICU beds, but they’ve been replaced with people who come to hospitals sicker than before the pandemic.
Williamson said many of them may have put off going to the hospital during the state’s surge, and as a result, find themselves sicker than they would have otherwise been.
Alabama’s hospitalizations began dropping in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide mask order in July, which she has extended twice, but after dipping down as low 703 on Sept. 25, hospitalizations have been rising.
Williamson said looking at the rate of increase in recent weeks, he predicts the state could again see daily hospitalizations of 1,500 as in July, and said while current hospitalizations for seasonal flu patients are in the single digits, there’s concern that as flu season continues the combination of flu and COVID-19 patients will strain hospital staffing resources and bed space statewide.
Williamson said from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.
“The period between Thanksgiving and the first of the year could be really, really problematic, given what we’re now seeing with COVID,” Williamson said.
Alabama added 1,115 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases on Tuesday, and the 14-day average of new daily cases hit 1,375. Over the last two weeks, the state added 19,244 cases, although 3,747 were older test results from labs that weren’t properly reporting to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Alabama’s 14-day positivity rate is at nearly 21 percent, although those older test results skewed the figure higher than it otherwise would have been. Just prior to those older cases being added to the count, however, Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity was 15 percent. Public health experts say it needs to be at or below 5 percent of cases are going undetected.
ADPH reported 26 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. Over the last four weeks, ADPH added 391 coronavirus deaths to the state’s total, which stood at 2,892 on Tuesday.
CDC confirmed expanded “close contact” definition to Alabama officials in August
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website.
New federal guidance on how a person is determined to have been in close contact with someone infected by COVID-19 won’t impact how Alabama works to mitigate the disease, said the state’s top health official. That’s because the state was already aware of the expanded definition in August before the change was made public last week.
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website when it was giving more precise definitions to at least one state health department and receiving questions from public health officials about the definition.
The delay in announcing the change is raising questions about how state health officials nationwide have been determining the public’s possible exposure to the deadly disease and if contact tracing and mitigation efforts will be made more time- and resource-intensive with the more inclusive definition in place.
The CDC on Wednesday expanded the definition of “close contact” to mean a person can be at risk of contracting COVID-19 if that person is within six feet of an infected person for a period of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.
The previous definition stated a person should quarantine if they were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Alternately, in other areas of the CDC’s website, the language stated “a total of 15 minutes” in the definition of close contact.
“What they changed their definition to is something they had verbally confirmed to us months ago, and we have always been using that definition,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR on Friday.
Harris said a support team from the CDC was in Alabama in July as the Alabama Department of Public Health was preparing plans to reopen schools. Harris said the question was asked of CDC staff because his department was getting questions on the definition of close contact from school officials.
APDH staff took the definition then of “a total of 15 minutes” to mean that there could be several exposures over a period of time equaling that 15 minute threshold, so they asked CDC to clarify that assertion.
“When those folks were here we asked the CDC people directly. Can you confirm for us what that means, and they said, it adds up to a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” Harris said. “And we even got somebody to commit to that in an email somewhere.”
Melissa Morrison, CDC’s career epidemiology field officer working at the ADPH in Montgomery, in an Aug. 13 email to ADPH’s director of the office of governmental affairs, quotes a statement Morrison attributes to her CDC colleague, CDC public health advisor Kelly Bishop. Harris shared the email with APR.
“Yes, I did get a response from the contact tracing team. The 15 minutes for a close contact is cumulative, and they said ‘The time period for the cumulative exposure should start from 2 days before the cases’ illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection date) until the time the patient is isolated,” Morrison quotes Bishop in the email.
In the August email, Bishop goes on to say, as attributed by Morrison, that “as of now there is no established upper limit on the time period (i.e. 48, 72 hours etc).”
The CDC’s expanded definition was reflected in an Aug. 20 statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“The 15-minute time is a cumulative period of time. For example, a close contact might be within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 5 minutes each at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. This is a standard based on guidance from the CDC,” the statement reads.
In an email to APR on Friday, Harris said he’d discussed the matter with Morrison on Friday who “emphasized that the guidance this week from CDC was NOT a change but rather a clarification. They simply used the MMWR corrections story as a convenient time to make the point.”
Harris was referring to a CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released Wednesday that detailed findings by Vermont health officials showing that a prison worker contracted COVID-19 during an eight-hour shift in which the worker had 22 close contacts with an infected inmate totaling 17 minutes.
The CDC in statements to numerous news outlets, and to APR, cite that Vermont study in connection to Wednesday’s definition change.
“That’s kind of why they said it out loud,” Harris said of the study and the Wednesday announcement. “But I have to say, when I saw that updated guidance I thought, ‘I can’t believe anybody ever thought otherwise.’”
Different pages on the CDC’s website on Saturday defined close contact as both being “a total of 15 minutes or more” and “a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period,” confusing the matter further, and numerous other state health departments had not yet updated their websites Saturday to reflect the CDC’s expanded definition.
A CDC spokesman in an email to APR on Wednesday noted the Vermont study on the prison worker and said “CDC clarified the amount of time it would take for someone to be considered a close contact exposed to a person with COVID-19.”
“The CDC website now defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Previous language defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a confirmed case,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley told APR by email Wednesday.
Pauley didn’t respond to APR’s question on Friday asking why the CDC waited until Wednesday to update its guidance online, given that ADPH had confirmed the definition of close contact in August. He also didn’t respond to a request to verify the statement Morrison attributed to her CDC colleague in the August email.
“To us, we thought if it says a total, that means you must be adding up smaller amounts to get to 15 minutes, or you wouldn’t use the word total,” Harris said. “When they changed it this week, I don’t know the details of why that happened, but I think, obviously, everybody didn’t have the same message everywhere.”
Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UAB’s Department of Epidemiology, told APR on Friday that her understanding prior to Wednesday’s expanded definition was that a contact was defined as someone who was exposed to the COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 min or more at a time and explained that the updated guidance complicates how public health officials will engage in contact tracing.
“This means significant efforts for contact tracing moving forward, in effect needing to identify every person that person came into contact with during the possible exposure timeframe,” she said.
It was unclear Monday how the definition change impacts Alabama’s Guidesafe COVID-19 exposure notification app, which notifies a user if they come into close contact with an infected person. The app was developed by ADPH and University of Alabama at Birmingham, thanks to a partnership between Apple and Google’s combined development of the technology, and alerts users to possible exposure while keeping all users’ identities anonymous.
Sue Feldman, professor of health informatics, UAB School of Health Professions, in a message to APR on Friday said that due to the anonymity of the app, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to update the app to take into consideration the CDC’s expanded guidance.
“We are taking this into consideration for our next update,” Feldman said in the message.
Also unclear is how many other states that have similar exposure notification apps, also using Google and Apple’s technology, aren’t yet using the expanded definition of a “close contact.” Colorado is to roll out that state’s app on Sunday, and according to Colorado Public Radio News the app will notify a user that they’ve been exposed if they come “within six feet of the phone of someone who tested positive for at least ten minutes.”
New York’s exposure notification app also appears to use the old CDC guidance, and will alert users if they come “within 6 feet of your phone for longer than 10 minutes,” according to the state’s website.
The updated definition, which health departments refer to when conducting contact tracing, is likely to have a serious impact on schools, workplaces and other group settings where personal contact may stretch over longer periods of time including multiple interactions.
It greatly expands the pool of people considered at risk of transmission. “It’s easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told The Washington Post. “I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts.”
The clarification comes as cases and hospitalizations are rising both in Alabama and nationwide. Alabama’s 14-day average of cases has increased 41.2 percent over the past two weeks. The percentage of tests that are positive has increased from roughly 13 percent to more than 20 percent over the past 14 days. The U.S. average of new daily infections is now at its highest point of the pandemic, with 481,372 cases reported in a week, according to CNN and Johns Hopkins University.
Study: COVID-19 infection rates more than double without lockdowns
Infection and fatality rates would have been higher without stay-at-home orders, a new UAB study found.
New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that if there had been no stay-at-home orders issued in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would have experienced a 220 percent higher rate of infection and a 22 percent higher fatality rate than if such orders were implemented nationwide.
Seven states never imposed stay-at-home orders, or SAHOs. The study analyzed daily positive case rates by state against the presence or absence of statewide SAHOs between March 1 and May 4, the period when such orders began to be implemented. Twelve states lifted their SAHOs before May 4.
The researchers defined SAHOs as being in effect when a state’s governor issued an order for residents of the entire state to leave home only for essential activities and when schools and nonessential businesses were closed.
“During March and April, most states in the United States imposed shutdowns and enacted SAHOs in an effort to control the disease,” said Bisakha Sen, the study’s senior author. “However, mixed messages from political authorities on the usefulness of SAHOs, popular pressure and concerns about the economic fallout led some states to lift the restrictions before public health experts considered it advisable.”
The research also sought to determine if the proportion of a state’s Black residents was associated with its number of positive cases. It found that there was.
“This finding adds to evidence from existing studies using county-level data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and underlines the urgency of better understanding and addressing these disparities,” said study co-author Vidya Sagar Hanumanthu.
The research can help advance a greater understanding of racial disparities in the health care system as a whole, and help leaders make future decisions about shutdowns as the virus continues to spread, Sen said.
“While the high economic cost makes SAHOs unsustainable as a long-term policy, our findings could help inform federal, state and local policymakers in weighing the costs and benefits of different short-term options to combat the pandemic,” she said.
The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
122,000 Alabamians could lose health coverage if ACA is overturned, study finds
President Donald Trump’s administration and 18 states, including Alabama, are asking the country’s highest court to strike down the law.
At least 122,000 Alabamians and 21.1 million in the U.S. overall would lose health coverage if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, according to a recent study.
The Washington D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute’s analysis found that Alabama’s uninsured rate would increase by 25 percent if the court strikes down the Affordable Care Act. Oral arguments in a case against the landmark health care law are to begin on Nov. 10.
President Donald Trump’s administration and 18 states, including Alabama, are asking the country’s highest court to strike down the entire ACA.
Trump, speaking to CBS News’s Lesley Stahl in a recent interview, said he would like the Supreme Court to end the ACA. There’s concern among many that Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, could be a deciding factor in the repeal of the ACA when the Supreme Court hears the case just after the Nov. 3 election.
“I hope that they end it. It’ll be so good if they end it,” Trump told Stahl.
“Repealing the ACA would throw our health care system into chaos in the middle of a pandemic and a deep recession,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of Alabamians would lose health coverage when they need it most. And hundreds of thousands would pay more for coverage or lose protections for their preexisting conditions.”
Health care coverage losses could be even larger next year, as the COVID-19 pandemic and recession likely still will be ongoing, according to the study.
“The ACA has been a health lifeline for many Alabamians during the pandemic,” Hyden said. “It provides coverage options for people who have lost their jobs or seen sharp reductions in their income. And it ensures people aren’t denied insurance just because they got sick.”
Ending the ACA would also reverse gains made in reducing racial disparities in health care coverage, researchers in the study found, noting that overturning the ACA would strip health coverage from nearly one in 10 Black and Latino Americans under age 65, and more than one in 10 Native Americans nationwide would lose health insurance.
People with pre-existing conditions would be charged higher insurance rates, or have their coverage dropped altogether, if the ACA is struck down, according to the study, which also found that the law’s repeal would harm people who have health insurance through their jobs.
Those who have health insurance from an employer could see their plans reintroduce annual and lifetime coverage limits, and requirements for plans to cover essential benefits and provide free preventive services would disappear, according to the study, as would the requirement for insurers to allow young adults to be covered through their parents’ plans.
While millions would lose health care if the law is repealed, the country’s top earners would receive tax cuts, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found that the highest-income 0.1 percent of households, which earn more than $3 million annually, would receive tax cuts averaging about $198,000 per year.
“A portion of these tax cuts — about $10 billion per year — would come at the direct expense of the Medicare Trust Fund, since the additional Medicare tax the ACA instituted for couples with earnings over $250,000 flows to the fund,” the Center of Budget and Policy Priority study reads.
Pharmaceutical companies would pay $2.8 billion less in taxes each year, according to the study, while millions of seniors would pay billions more for prescription drugs due to the gap in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit if the ACA is repealed.
“The ACA has left Alabama better equipped to fight COVID-19 and rebuild our economy after the recession,” Hyden said. “And those benefits would be even greater if Alabama would adopt Medicaid expansion.
“Striking down the ACA would harm the Alabamians who have suffered the most during the pandemic and the recession. It would deprive our state of the opportunity to save lives and strengthen our health care system by expanding Medicaid,” Hyden continued. “And it would shower huge tax cuts on rich people while making life harder for everyone else. Alabama officials should stop seeking to undermine the ACA and start investing in a healthier future for our entire state.”