Local COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Facing Busy Signals on Hotline, ‘Math Problem’

The Alabama Department of Public Health has a message for people frustrated by not being able to reach through the COVID-19 vaccination scheduling hotline: keep trying.

With the state beginning virus vaccinations for citizens aged 75 years and older and emergency frontline workers Jan. 18, ADHP began scheduling appointments for local health departments the week prior.

That is, if callers could get through.

“Our hotline has not worked very well,” said the ADPH’s Dr. Karen Landers during the weekly coronavirus update at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

Busy signals at the hotline — 1-855-566-5333 — greeted callers more than a voice answering on the other end for the first week of scheduling for the general public rollout.

Landers said measures are being taken to remedy the problem.

An original 100 lines were ordered with 165 people trained to take calls. The ADHP, which contracted the hotline work, has asked for the number of lines to be doubled.

The state is also developing an online registration site.

“We recognize there are parts of our plan that need to be changed,” Landers said. “There are parts of our plan that need to be fixed, and we are working on that in order to be able to provide a better service to not only the citizens of Alabama, but also the citizens of (Madison County) and the cities within this county.”

According to Landers, as of Jan.11 an original 87,000 vaccines had been administered. The state originally had 271,000 doses allocated, including the second dose for those who received the first.

“Keep in mind,’’ Landers said, “at this moment vaccine supply remains limited. So we certainly have more people wanting appointments than we have vaccines available.”

A published report, citing statistics from the nation’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Alabama was last in the nation in percentage of population that has been vaccinated so far at 1.9 percent.

But Landers said the ADPH data “does not concur with CDC’s data at this moment.’’

The CDC has recommended states include those 65 and older in the original rollout. Obviously, Alabama did not have the supplies to include another group.

“We are certainly hoping for more shipments,’’ Landers said. “We have asked for more shipments.”

All available appointments at local health departments have been filled, but there is a waiting list.

“Has there been satisfaction with the process? So far, no, there hasn’t been,’’ Landers said. “I’m not satisfied so I don’t think anyone else is satisfied.

“But we continue to work toward solutions, and we appreciate the understanding of everyone in the state regarding how we are tackling this monumental and Herculean task.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle urged citizens to continue following safety guidelines while awaiting vaccinations.

“It’s a math problem,” Battle said. “You have to look at it. There’s 440,000 people in Madison County. So even at 10,000 a week it’s going to be quite a while before we get to the stage where everybody is vaccinated.”

Not Traveling Is Working for Now, But Can Virtual Business Sustain Test of Time?

While questions remain about when life in general will return to normal after nearly a year of pandemic, some of the more pressing questions surround the sustainability of businesses if they continue to operate in a virtual vacuum.

Certainly, for the time being, both small and large businesses in Huntsville are adjusting well to the circumstances. Telework and working from home, Zoom conferences and virtual events have made their way into the mainstream, and everyday life from online learning to groundbreakings, tradeshows, and award ceremonies are relying on virtual technology to carry them through. 

While some people, particularly in the educational field, are reporting “Zoom fatigue”, others are already seeing it as an opportunity to get creative, scale back office space, and streamline procedures and operations well into the future if not permanently.

But how sustainable is it really?

Air travel at Huntsville International Airport is ordinarily 70 percent business and 30 percent leisure. Currently combined, HSV is operating at about 30 percent of what it was this time in 2019. 

According to Jana Kuner, airport public relations and customer service manager, air travel is slowly improving, but business travel will be the real indicator for how long it will take to get back to normal, and when it does – assuming it will eventually, just how much will business have changed?

“Do people prefer Zoom to in-person meetings and are the savings in travel costs justifiable when compared to face-to-face meetings to ‘close a deal’ or meeting new people to build relationships?” she asks. “These are questions businesses everywhere are asking and the airport is interested in their perspective.”

Bevilacqua Research Corp. CEO Larry Burger said employees are losing, and missing, the personal connection with people.

“Those little conversations you have waiting for a meeting to start, or at the end of the meeting when you extend the conversation beyond the meeting,” he said. “You lose that sense of belonging, that feel of family in an organization when you haven’t seen someone in a month or so who works within your company.

“I think there are a lot of general update meetings for established customers that may continue to be virtual after everything returns to normal,” said Robert Conger, senior vice president of Technology and Strategy at Adtran. “However, when it comes to competing for new business and establishing key relationships, companies will still want to be in-person once they are able to safely do so.

“I do think web meetings and remote work will continue to play a much larger role in business than they did prior to this year, but each company will have to make their own decisions about when they may return to normal based on the type of work and roles within each company.”

For example, Conger said it will depend on the type of work a company is doing, the individual roles within those companies, and the experience level of the employees as to how effective remote working will be in the long run.

“For a lot of jobs like software development, remote work is fairly efficient and effective as long as the employees have a good environment at home to limit distractions. However, for employees that are new to a company or are earlier in their careers, there is a lot of value in those face-to-face work environments where you can collaborate more frequently and easily.”

Kuner uses the AUSA 2020 Annual Meeting going virtual this year as an example of a travel-related event that had a big impact on HSV because so many people in Huntsville travel to that conference by air. 

“Some things just can’t be done in the same way virtually,” she said. “While a simple meeting or conference call can accomplish some tasks, it can’t replace the in-person networking, relationship building, and deal making that in person accomplishes.”

Burger agrees.

“Virtual conferences are much less effective because you don’t get that synergy of a face-to-face,” he said. “We just had a live event in Huntsville for the Redstone Small Business Contracting Conference & Expo and we got more than a dozen leads that were unexpected because we were there. We could have discussions face-to-face with people wandering around the exhibit hall. None of it would have occurred virtually.

“We get almost nothing from a virtual event. We are still following up with several opportunities to work together with companies we met at the Redstone event. That’s the value of the conference … being in person, able to combine everybody’s good ideas to come up with a much better solution.”

How about the costs incurred in by having to have IT teams and creative departments develop virtual “booths”, Kuner said. Do other businesses stop by those booths like they do when the conference is in person?

“We hosted our first virtual customer summit a couple of months ago,” said Congers. “We had to invest in a platform that nearly cost as much as what it would have cost to host customers on site, at least for the first use. With that said, we can continue to use the platform at a lesser expense moving forward, so it will reduce our cost over time. 

“In the case of the virtual customer meeting with Adtran as the host, it was a great success in terms of how many customers we were able to reach versus on-site but you certainly lose some of the focused customer attention and relationship-building opportunities in a virtual environment. 

“As for the larger virtual conferences with booths, these are much less effective than the typical in-person conferences.”

But Burger said in-person meetings hold an advantage over online meetings.

“We attended another live event where we rolled out a new product and more than 10 percent of the people we talked to were very interested in following up or purchasing, whereas we can’t get any traction with just online stuff,” said Burger. “For a new product, if you let me explain it to people and talk to them about it, they tend so say, ‘Oh, okay, that makes sense’ or ‘That’s a good idea’.”

Burger said Bevilacqua has made allowances for some of his employees so they can still travel.

“We’re doing very limited travel, but we have several folks who are traveling by automobile,” he said. “One of our older employees who is high risk, bought a recreational vehicle so he and his wife can travel together. Of course, what used to be a half-day trip takes them two or three days, but they feel safer and they don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way.”

Roger Rhodes, Business Development director at Qualis, said nothing replaces the human face-to-face interaction for building relationships and making deals but he believes virtual meetings are here to stay.

“We completely cut out travel since May,” said Rhodes. “I think virtual meetings will continue to play a major role in business for the foreseeable future, but companies will reassess travel costs versus the benefits in the near future but the way of marketing and business travel has definitely changed. We will look to others to determine that balance of travel for the new norm.” 

Congers agrees.

“Virtual meetings will continue to be a vital component in day-to-day engagements where maybe face-to-face meetings are not as critical or as a complement to less-frequent on-site meetings,” he said. “However, when it comes to relationship-building and pursuing new customer opportunities, each vendor will want to have an edge of their competition and being in front of the customer more often is one way to achieve that.”

Kuner said it is important for people to know HSV is clean and safe and they have all of the appropriate procedures in place to keep people safe. 

“We encourage our region to get back to the sky for business and leisure,” she said. “Our airport is so heavy with business travel, if Huntsville gets back to traveling sooner, it could positively impact the airport since the airlines will be making decisions for adding back flights and routes based on demand. It could give them an opportunity to re-evaluate what worked before the pandemic, and where needs are for travel after.

“If we show that we are back to the sky and we need the service, then chances are that they will provide it. This could be an opportunity for us to shake things up.”

Huntsville Hospital to Receive Coronavirus Vaccine; Cases Continue to Rise

As the initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine are being delivered around the country, the song remains the same regarding – wear face masks, sanitize hands and practice social distancing.

“It’s a record that just keeps spinning,’’ Madison Mayor Paul Finley said at the weekly coronavirus update.

And with the holiday season here and virus cases rising, Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson urges one more thing.

“Avoid gatherings’’ of more than five to 10 people, she said.

Meanwhile, Huntsville Hospital will receive doses of the new vaccine since it has the refrigeration system capable of storing the sensitive treatment.

“Huntsville Hospital will help take a leadership role in trying to get this out and this is not community-wide vaccination,’’ Hudson said. “It’s prioritized for frontline health care workers.”

The general public might not have vaccines available until the summer.

While the number of positive cases continue to rise around the nation, state and Madison County, Hudson couldn’t pinpoint Thanksgiving gatherings as a reason for the ongoing rise in numbers.

Instead, she said, the uptick in hospitalizations for COVID-19 can be attributed to, not only Thanksgiving but, the increase in people attending such things as sporting events as the country has opened up.

“Since fall break in October, there’s been a gradual increase,’’ Hudson said.

In North Alabama hospitals, 30 to 50 percent of people hospitalized are due to COVID-19. At the peak of positive cases in the summer, there were about 1,500 people hospitalized because of the virus. The current number is more than 2,000.

As of Dec. 9, there were 234 county in-patients with 37 in ICUs and 29 on ventilators.

As of Dec. 12, the county has confirmed 17,030 cases of the virus with 162 deaths. Statewide, those numbers are 295,631 and 4,102.

Hudson said the growing number of virus patients is straining personnel resources. At least 200 health care workers in the area are out with coronavirus or seasonal flu-related issues.

“Hospitals are responding to all-time highs,’’ she said. “It’s safe to say across the entire state we are struggling with hospitalizations due to COVID.’’

Elective surgeries have been reduced or stopped at many facilities because of staff shortages.

Also, Gov. Kay Ivey extended a mask-wearing mandate until Jan. 22, but has indicated she won’t place further restrictions on businesses or the community.

In the meantime, Finley joined Hudson in advising people to avoid large holiday parties.

“The less opportunity we have of all getting together,’’ he said, “the better off we’ll be.’’

 

HudsonAlpha Tracking COVID-19’s Transmission through Alabama

The state of Alabama, HudsonAlpha and Diatherix-Eurofins are teaming up to trace and identify COVID-19’s transmission throughout the state.

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology recently announced its ongoing efforts in support of Gov. Kay Ivey’s work to respond to and mitigate COVID-19. Through Alabama’s Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $600,000 has been allocated to HudsonAlpha to perform genomic sequencing on positive SARS-CoV-2 samples from people across the state.

“All of us at HudsonAlpha are grateful to the state of Alabama for this support to help strengthen our state’s response and planning for this pandemic,” said Dr. Rick Myers, HudsonAlpha president and science director.

Dr. Jane Grimwood: “You can track the transmission of the virus from the original source all the way through to an infection …”

Leading the project is Dr. Jane Grimwood, the co-director of HudsonAlpha’s Genome Sequencing Center.

“Through this initiative with the state, HudsonAlpha aims to provide actionable information to help the collective efforts of policymakers and frontline workers in the fight against the pandemic,” she said.

When the pandemic started, HudsonAlpha was looking for ways to help, particularly in Alabama. Working in collaboration with Diatherix-Eurofins, the genomics team secured funding to sequence the virus. With Diatherix on the HudsonAlpha campus, obtaining samples is an efficient, as well as convenient, process.

“We are getting positive Alabama samples from them,” said Grimwood. “And then, we are sequencing them, using technology we use every day for other projects.”

The goal of the project is to sequence up to 2,000 virus samples – ideally from all of the counties.  The information will be provided to the Alabama Department of Public Health and other parties having critical roles in response to the pandemic.

Along with plans to identify the different strains of SARS-CoV-2 virus from across the state, the COVID-19 initiative will generate longitudinal data to track changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus during the pandemic, as well as uncovering possible sources of new hot spots of infection.

“When the virus replicates, it makes errors, and these errors are what we call mutations,” said Grimwood. “Using these mutations, you can track the transmission of the virus from the original source all the way to through to an infection today, based on those errors.

“And you can potentially see how the virus is transmitting around Alabama.”

Other components of the initiative include surveying for possible emerging strains of virus which could have implications for vaccine development and vaccine efficiency, as well as adding an Alabama perspective to national and global COVID-19 initiatives through statewide genomic sequencing.

“Essentially, it’s surveillance,” Grimwood said. “To better understand the virus better and to try to be ahead of any changes. On one hand, the transmission side; on the other hand, to look at any differences or any errors or mutations that would cause the vaccine to behave differently.”

Myers said, “HudsonAlpha’s genomic research scientists are fully committed to combating this deadly virus.”

 

COVID and Genetics: HudsonAlpha Researchers Study Impact in Less Affluent Countries

For nearly all of 2020, COVID-19 and its health consequences have been front and center. Not a single day goes by without some sort of reminder that our world is in a state of global pandemic. 

Although the scientific and medical communities continue to learn more about COVID-19, there is still little known about the risks for morbidity and mortality that the pandemic carries for different categories of genetic disorders. 

Genetics centers worldwide have been documenting successful accounts of continuity of care for patients with genetic disorders during COVID-19. However, there exists a broad disparity between the economically affluent countries with well-developed healthcare systems and the under-resourced countries, which often lack access to consistent health care. 

In other words, in the low- and middle-income countries, people with COVID-19 that might also have a genetic disorder are often hit with a double whammy.

Dr. Nakouzi: “In the lower- to middle-income countries, there is a lack of resources, that’s the main problem.”

To address this disparity, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Faculty Investigator Dr. Elaine Lyon, director of the HudsonAlpha Clinical Services Lab, and Dr. Ghunwa Nakouzi, associate director of the lab, joined colleagues from the American University of Beirut to provide nine recommendations for the care of patients with genetic disorders in low- and middle-income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. These recommendations were recently published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

For Nakouzi, the study hits close to home. Originally from Lebanon, Nakouzi has worked with colleagues at the Beirut university over the past few years to highlight the burden of genetic disorders and address deficiencies in genetic health care in Lebanon and other neighboring low- and middle-income countries. 

“These recommendations were meant to provide guidance to health care professionals and the healthcare system in under-resourced countries, like Lebanon, specifically, because that where we have the connection and the direct experience,” said Nakouzi. “In general, as we see here in the United States, which is considered a more developed country, there have been many measures that were taken to facilitate the continuity of care of patients with genetic disorders.

“This continuity of care is possible in such a well-developed health system. Unfortunately, in more under-resourced countries, these measures are not as easily applicable as they would be in a more developed country.”

The recommendations touch on several aspects of genetic care from physician encounters to diagnostic testing to access to treatment, and even to medical research that is already limited in the under-resourced countries. They also serve as a framework to help health care professionals dealing with genetic disorders in these countries, in order to maintain an adequate level of necessary care for patients. 

“In the lower- to middle-income countries, there is a lack of resources, that’s the main problem,” said Nakouzi. “Without collaboration, it’s very hard to achieve much of what needs to be achieved. So, there is going to be lots of collaboration that is needed to push forward.”

To read the recommendations in their entirety: https://hudsonalpha.org/hudsonalpha-researchers-provide-recommended-measures-for-the-care-of-patients-with-genetic-disorders-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

 

CNI Solutions, United Way Giving Away Hand Sanitizer

CNI Solutions is hosting a drive-thru, hand-sanitizer distribution event with the United Way of Madison County on Thursday at 11 a.m. It will be at CNI Solutions’ facility at 1035 Putman Drive in Huntsville.

CNI Solutions and the United Way will distribute more than 30,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to the 27 local United Way nonprofit partner organizations as well as several other key agencies and churches that serve in the area.

“The world is currently preparing for another phase of this pandemic and our hope is to make sure every member of the community is equipped with the essentials to remain safe during this challenging time,” said CNI Solutions Executive Director Iris P. Frye.

CNI Solutions is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization based in Huntsville to champion the underserved, at-risk, minority, formerly incarcerated, and female populations.

“We at United Way of Madison County are so appreciative and happy to help this huge distribution happen,” said Cathy Miller, Community Impact Director for the United Way. “These generous donations increase the capacity of these organizations to serve.  They can concentrate more of their dollars helping people and less on purchasing personal protective equipment for their staff and clients.

“That means we can help more.”

Vaccine on Horizon, but COVID-19 Pandemic is Straining Front-Line Personnel

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials have sounded the alarm that there would be a second or even third wave.

They were right.

While cases are surging nationwide, including Alabama, there is hope two vaccines will be available as soon as mid-December.

But there won’t be a magic bullet. The general public might not be able to get a vaccine until summer as health care workers and high-risk elderly are first in line.

Also, the surge currently underway will likely rise as the weather cools and a Thanksgiving spike is expected to last throughout the holidays.

Officials at the weekly virus update provided a grim outlook for the near future as hospitalizations are trending up at an “alarming rate’’ and straining front-line workers.

“Our issue is not going to be space,’’ said Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers. “We’ve got a lot of big facilities and we’ve got a lot of places to put people.

“Our issue is going to be staff.’’

According to Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, there are currently 235 health care providers out “because they’ve either contracted COVID or they’re displaying symptoms.’’

As of Thursday morning there were a total of 260,359 confirmed virus cases and  3,766 deaths in the state. Those numbers stood at 14,253 and 153 in Madison County.

Huntsville Hospital facilities in Decatur and Marshall County are running out of space and elective surgeries have once again been suspended.

“Our physicians, our nurses, the folks that are keeping our hospitals clean are doing a phenomenal job,’’ Strong said. “But I’m telling you right now — we’re not to the end of this road, and we want to be sure not to scare the public, but this is real.

“This is the most real situation of our generation. We’ve got to take it seriously.”

Spillers said about 12 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 die, which could create a morbid situation if the toll of deaths spikes. Huntsville Hospital’s morgue holds 10 bodies and, if necessary, a makeshift morgue might have to be added outside the building.

“The funeral homes cannot process people quickly enough so you create a bottleneck and when you create a bottleneck it’s just like a traffic jam,’’ he said. 

“It’s a terrible thing to happen, but at the rate we’re going it could likely happen here.’’

One positive is Huntsville Hospital has the refrigeration equipment needed to store the vaccines, which require Arctic-like temperatures. But when the vaccines start arriving, the virus won’t suddenly disappear.

“The two vaccines that we’re made aware of right now are two-dose vaccines,” Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Birdwell said. “You take the first dose, then it’s 21 days later that you take the second dose.

“Then there’s a period of time where even after that second dose that immunity has to take place through that process. So just that process, you’re looking at over a month for just that person. So it’s not going to happen quickly.”

Governor Announces ‘Revive Plus’ $200M Small Business Grant Program

The state has launched Revive Plus, a $200 million grant program to support small businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations in Alabama that have been impacted by COVID-19, Gov. Kay Ivey announced.

Revive Plus is the second wave of funding for these organizations with 50 or fewer employees and will award grants of up to $20,000 for expenses they have incurred due to operational interruptions caused by the pandemic and related business closures.

“As the state has rolled out over $1 billion of the CARES Act monies to the individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19, it became evident the group most overwhelmingly hurt during the pandemic were the small ‘mom and pop’ shops,” Ivey said. “A second round of assistance through Revive Plus will ensure that the small business owners who have borne the brunt of the downed economy can be made as whole as possible.

“As we head into the holiday season, my hope is that this will be welcome news for our businesses and help ease their burdens from what has been a very hard year.”

Entities may receive up to $20,000 to reimburse qualifying expenses if they have not received federal assistance for the corresponding item they are claiming with the state of Alabama.

The Revive Plus grant is in addition to any state of Alabama Coronavirus Relief Fund grant previously received, including the Revive Alabama Small Business, Non-Profit, Faith-Based, and Health Care Provider grants. There is no set cap on the number of entities that may be awarded a Revive Plus Grant.

Information and applications are available at the Coronavirus Relief Fund website – https://crf.alabama.gov/. The application period is noon Nov. 23 through noon Dec. 4. Grants will be awarded to qualifying applicants on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds are exhausted.

“The Revive Plus program is much needed in our small business economy,” Senate General Fund Chairman Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) said. “I commend Governor Ivey for taking this action, recapturing unspent dollars and using a proven program to bring economic relief to our small business owners.”

Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 initially designated up to $300 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for individuals, businesses, non-profit and faith-based organizations directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. After the initial $100 million for small business that was reimbursed starting in July 2020, legislative leadership approved a second round of $200 million from allocations made to reimburse state government and from other grant programs that have ended with the full allocation unspent.

Mayor: Good News on Horizon in COVID-19 Fight but Vigilance Still Urged

While Madison County and the nation are seeing a surge in positive coronavirus cases, the news wasn’t all negative at the weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

The Alabama Department of Public Health announced earlier it received the antibody drug Bamlanivimad to treat virus patients. The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for the drug.

Also, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna both said they hoped to ask for emergency authorization for vaccines that were 90 percent effective against the virus in clinical trials.

“The good news is there’s something on the horizon,’’ Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said. “But along with that good news we’ve got to stay vigilant, stay ready and continue to do the basics like we have for the last eight months.’’

Those basics are practicing social distance, sanitizing, wearing a mask and avoiding potential unsafe situations.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson also urged people to stay safe.

“No matter what anybody says, wear a mask,’’ she said. “And wear it properly.’’

There are 108 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Crestwood and the Huntsville Hospital system. Of that number 31 are in ICU and 17 are on ventilators.

According to Jeff Birdwell, director of the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, the county had 1,558 confirmed COVID-19 cases in October. About a third of the way through November, there were already more than 700 confirmed cases.

“We are seeing what I would say are significant increases in the first part of the month,’’ he said. “There’s considerable concern there.’’

According to the FDA, Bamlanivimab has been shown in clinical trials to reduce coronavirus-related hospitalizations. The drug is designed for those who have contracted the virus and are at a higher risk for developing more severe symptoms.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is developing a plan to distribute Bamlanivimab to those who may need it.

“The therapeutic is approved for certain patients who have medical criteria that put them at high risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 and/or hospitalization,” said the ADPH in a statement. “This group includes persons who are 65 years of age or older, or who have certain chronic medical conditions. Bamlanivimab is an IV drug treatment and certain requirements must be met in order to use this agent. The department is working with providers to develop a strategic plan for distribution and use of Bamlanivimab.”

Hudson said other therapeutics such as Remdisvir have already helped some COVID-19 patients from requiring hospitalization.

She also said when a vaccine is ready it will be rolled out in three phases. Frontline health care workers will be first to receive the vaccine, followed by high-risk people and then the general public. The hope among health officials is a drug will be ready in late December or January for Phase One, the spring for Phase Two and summer for the final phase.

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,’’ Hudson said. “This morning a different metaphor came to mind — it’s not a battle, it’s a war.’’

Three Schools Return to Class; State Announces Vaccine Plan

Huntsville City Schools announced that Columbia, Lee and New Century Technology high schools students will return to campus classroom learning today.

The system suspended in-person learning last Wednesday through Friday due to the number of teachers under self-quarantine for exposure to COVID-19.

There were no new cases of positive tests at any of the three schools. However, the number of teachers who would be absent and the lack of substitute teachers to fill the void led the school system to transition back to virtual learning for three days.

The system began the school year with virtual classes only for the first nine weeks.

“When you have a lot of staff members in quarantine or a lot of teachers in quarantine, that of course takes away the student supervision in terms of teaching and learning,” HCS spokesperson Craig Williams said when classroom activities were suspended.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Public Health rolled out plans for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.

In a best-case scenario, one would be available to select individuals by the end of this year and to the general public in 2021.

If available the first persons to receive the vaccine will be those at high risk, including those with serious illness, health care workers and first responders.

“We want to assure the public that there will be (an) equitable distribution of vaccine to all Alabamians, especially to vulnerable populations in rural and urban areas,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a news release.

According to the release, several vaccine products are currently in clinical trials and will be released after their safety has been reviewed and approved by a panel of health experts. The vaccine will be provided free of charge.

The plan has three phases — critical populations, provider recruitment and enrollment, and many additional sections pertaining to vaccine. These include storage and handling, documentation and reporting, second-dose reminders, regulatory considerations, vaccine safety and program monitoring.

  • Phase 1: potentially limited doses of vaccine will be available and they will be targeted to those at highest risk and highest risk of exposure, first responders and healthcare workers who care for those with critical needs.
  • Phase 2: large numbers of doses will be available, and supply is likely to meet demand. Educational efforts will target critical populations who were not vaccinated in Phase 1.
  • Phase 3: there is likely to be a sufficient supply and all unvaccinated groups will be targeted. Special attention will be directed to populations or communities with low vaccine coverage.

The complete plan may be viewed at alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/assets/adph-covid19-vaccination-plan.pdf.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal program to make available 300 million doses of a vaccine by early 2021, is a plan to shorten a normal six-year vaccine approval process.

To volunteer for vaccine trials visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org/