Flu Season Could Impact Health Care Resources in Wake of Pandemic

The impending flu season could strain an already stretched health care system.

At last week’s COVID-19 update, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said the flu season could impact the pressures put on the area’s healthcare system.

“I do want to encourage everybody to start thinking about getting your flu shot,’’ he said. “Those will be available soon. It’s going to be very hard if people don’t get the flu shot and do get the flu.

“When they show up at any health care facility, we’re going to assume you have COVID until we know you don’t have COVID. So it will use up a lot of tests, take up a lot of your time, you’ll have to be quarantined, et cetera. My best advice is to get the flu shot.”

Meanwhile, the federal government reported it’s close to developing a vaccine for COVID-19 to be widely available in 2021. State officials are starting preparations for providing vaccines when they become available.

“We’ve got a large number of people from Madison County on a call (Tuesday),” Spillers said. “We’re going to be working with the state and probably over the next, I’d say within two weeks we’ll have a good plan. Long before the vaccine’s here, we’ll have a good plan not only for how we’re going to distribute, who we’re going to test, some idea of how many we think we might get, those types of things.”

As of Monday, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported 131,405 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 2,292 deaths. Those totals for Madison County were 7,267 and 67.

 

COVID-19 Causes Two High School Football Teams to Forfeit Games

Madison County officials announced last Wednesday a two-week trendline for the coronavirus had remained flat for the past month with around 40 new positive tests per week. The announcement was made at the latest COVID-19 news briefing.

Two days later, the coronavirus splashed back into local headlines with Madison City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols announcing Bob Jones would forfeit two football games because nine players had tested positive.

The Patriots forfeited a region game to Florence and will also forfeit this week’s non-region game against Auburn while the team shuts down activities. The second forfeit will leave Bob Jones with records of 2-3 overall and 0-2 in Class 7A, Region 4.

The school system also delayed Monday’s expected reopening of on-campus learning for one week. There were reportedly 15 positive cases and 170 students and staff quarantined across the system.

However, Bob Jones isn’t the only football team sidelined by COVID-19.

Monday, days after Madison County Schools students returned to campus, system spokesman Tim Hall said Hazel Green would shut down its football season for 14 days after three players tested positive and 15 other Trojans are in quarantine. Hazel Green is off this week, but will forfeit a region game to Muscle Shoals Sept. 25 and will have records of 2-4 overall and 0-4 in Class 6A, Region 8.

Huntsville City Schools, which reported nine positive cases with 114 quarantined among its students and staff, also reopened campuses Monday to many of the system’s students.

 

Coronavirus Brings Down Curtain on 2020 Huntsville Ballet Company Season

The news was bittersweet: “No Nutcracker.”

A long-time Huntsville tradition and its host organization – Huntsville Ballet Company – are the latest victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has struck deep and wide within performing arts communities nationwide and, despite the sense of protective insulation, Huntsville-Madison Country organizations are also taking a major hit.

At a recent news conference,  The Community Ballet Association/Huntsville Ballet Company announced, in consideration of the health and safety of patrons, dancers, students, and staff, they are cancelling all performances and events for 2020.

It was a difficult and agonizing decision to make.

“As you can imagine, this is a sad, challenging time for everybody,” said Phillip Otto, the Ballet Company’s Artistic Director. “Unfortunately, the Huntsville Ballet cannot survive without grants and ticket revenue from performances.”

In their 12th season with the Huntsville Ballet, Otto and his wife, Ballet Mistress and School Director Rachel Butler, have spent a little over a decade developing the company into what it is today.

“It’s been a long road,” said Otto. “We’ve worked really hard to get to this point.”

Huntsville Ballet is one of only four professional ballet companies in Alabama. Founded in 1964, the company brought  the highest caliber of dance and performing ballets, such as “The Nutcracker,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Firebird” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

Each year, students at the Huntsville Ballet school get the chance to audition and perform with the ballet company in “The Nutcracker,” a time-honored Huntsville holiday tradition. A lot of hard work, rehearsal, and sweat equity go into preparing for that opportunity.

This year will be very different. For the first time in 51 years, “The Nutcracker” will not be presented.

“It’s hard because we’re not preparing for shows, so we don’t have something to work towards,” said dancer Ashley Jordan. “So, we’re just having to push each other. That helps a lot. Just knowing that what we do is something that we love to do.

Huntsville Ballet’s mission is to use the power of dance to inspire and nurture the art of classical ballet through artistic excellence, performance experiences, and outreach activities in the community.

Huntsville Ballet Company relies entirely on grants, donations, sponsorships and ticket revenue from performances. To help keep Huntsville Ballet viable, they have developed a fundraising campaign called “Bridge the Ballet” and has set up a GoFundMe page. Help Bridge the Ballet to a Brighter Future:

https://charity.gofundme.com/communityballetassociationofhuntsvilleinchuntsvilleballetcompanyhuntsvilleballetschool      

Fund Established to Support Nonprofits Providing Supervised Learning for Students

A fund has been established to support nonprofit organizations providing assistance for local students during this time of virtual learning.

The Remote Learning Supervision Fund is a collaborative effort of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber, The Schools Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville. Toyota Alabama, Raytheon Technologies, and The Junior League of Huntsville provided the initial $50,000 to start the fund. The deadline for donations for the initial round of grants is Sept. 25, and grant applications will be open soon.

The fund is for nonprofits that provide supervised learning for students in Huntsville, Madison, and
Madison County school districts that are operating remotely, running staggered schedules, or temporarily closed because of COVID-19 cases.

“While all three public school systems are operating virtually for the first nine weeks, schedules could adjust as the school year proceeds, and students will continue to need support,” said Lucia Cape, the Chamber’s Senior Vice President of Economic Development, Industry Relations and Workforce. “We are thankful for all of the organizations who have stepped up to provide expanded services to support children, and this fund is intended to help provide scholarships and subsidies for parents who cannot afford existing options.”

As the first donor, Toyota created the momentum to get it started.

“Toyota is proud to support this initiative in collaboration with fellow community members,” said Kim Ogle, Toyota Motor North America Communications Manager. “We’re grateful to do our part and see our community come together and help each other during this unprecedented time.”

For information, visit hsvchamber.org.

Coronavirus Numbers Trending Downward but Flu Season Looms on the Horizon

Positive news has been the constant for recent COVID-19 press conferences at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

Nothing changed Friday as Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health and Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong produced statistics that suggest the novel coronavirus is trending downward, not just in the county but throughout the state..

But there was also a caveat: Regular ol’ flu season lurks in the near future, something that could throw a wrench in designs on getting back to normalcy if proper precautions aren’t taken.

“Flu season is going to be upon us relatively shortly and this year we must make sure that persons eligible for the flu vaccine — that’s persons six months or older who do not have a medical reason not to take the vaccine — get one,’’ she said.

“Flu vaccine is very safe and not something most people cannot take. Everyone needs to take a flu shot this year. That is very, very important.’’

The infectious disease specialist also debunked a common myth that is circulated every year.

“You cannot get influenza from a flu vaccine,’’ she said.

As for the current status of COVID-19 in Madison County, the total number of confirmed cases as of Saturday was 5,661 with 35 confirmed deaths. Statewide, the numbers are 103, 357 and 1,828.

The ADPH reports the positive testing rate for COVID-19 has declined. Landers said Friday’s preliminary positivity rate was 11.1 percent, down from Thursday’s 12.3 percent.

She also sa9d it was important to continue practicing the now-familiar safeguards: wearing face coverings, social distancing, sanitizing and hand-washing to slow the spread.

“What I believe, as the indicator shows, is that the multiple activities that we are taking to reduce the spread of this disease, such as the social distancing, the respiratory hygiene and the use of the cloth face covering, is having an impact,” she said. “We do appear to be having a flattening, a minimal decline, but nevertheless a decline in our numbers of hospitalization.

“So, I do believe we’re going in the right direction with this, and I think it will be very important that we continue to move in this direction over the next several weeks.”

Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County schools returned Aug. 12 with virtual learning. Other school systems in the Tennessee Valley returned to classrooms, and subsequently hundreds of students were placed in quarantine.

Landers said those students had not tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 but had compatible symptoms. She added the ASHP would review its guidelines on returning to campus.

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said new cases of coronavirus in Madison County have “slowed to levels we haven’t experienced since late June’’ with cases down 25 percent since last week and down almost 30 percent in the last 14 days.

According to Strong, Huntsville Hospital has 97 coronavirus inpatients with 31 in the ICU and 21 on ventilators.

Huntsville Hospital CEO: Downward Trend in Positive Cases

     Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers reported a downward trend in positive COVID-19 tests in the area — even though statewide the number of cases surpassed 100,000 this week — and went on to say he supports the return of college football.

     During Wednesday’s regular  coronavirus briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers, Spillers said the number of people hospitalized in Huntsville Hospital’s system dropped from 202 last week to 167. Sixty of that current number are in the ICU and 31 are on ventilators.

     In Madison County, there are a total of 97 patients hospitalized, down 12 from last week, with 31 in the ICU and 22 on ventilators. Crestwood Medical Center has 12 inpatients with four in the ICU and two on ventilators.

     “Positive news — things are trending in the right direction for our inpatients,” Spillers said. “We need that number to continue to fall. Ideally, that number would be zero, but below 60 for the region would probably be a manageable number with about half of those here in Madison County. 

     “So we continue to hope they will trend down to the point we don’t have more than 30 in our Madison facilities and no more than 30 spread out throughout the region. And obviously, none of those concentrated in any one hospital.”

     Madison Mayor Paul Finley said Madison County has averaged 32 new cases Monday and Tuesday with 1,376 county residents quarantined.

     “That’s the lowest we’ve seen in a long time,” Finley said.

     Statewide, there were 100,801 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 1,814 deaths as of Wednesday. In Madison County, those numbers are 5,510 and 35.

     Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County schools reopened with virtual learning this week. Spillers said only time will tell if those systems would return to in-class sessions before the end of the planned nine-week distance period.

     Returning to campus comes with cautionary tales. A statistic of note comes out of Georgia where a week after students returned to classrooms in Cherokee County, 900 students, teachers and workers have been quarantined because of positive tests and exposure to the virus.

     “We really need to manage Labor Day and hopefully the school systems will manage the students coming in and those two things won’t create another blip in the system so that we’re sitting here a month or six weeks from now with another problem on our hands,’’ Spillers said.

     Finley said there will inevitably be more positive cases as students begin to interact more.

     “We’re going to continue to hear cases as kids get together, and (school systems) are doing everything they can to plan for that to prepare for that,’’ he said. “I think we’re just going to have to deal with that,’’.

     In the wake of announcements by the Big 10 and PAC-12 conferences that they were canceling all fall sports seasons, Spillers was asked his thoughts on football in other conferences playing a fall schedule.

     “(From) someone who grew up playing football, every time you walk on to a football field you’re taking a risk,’’ he said. “Probably the risks are far greater than catching COVID. (College) athletes today are 300 pounds and run sub-five second 40s. There is a risk when somebody like that runs into you. I think to tell an athlete the risk is too great they’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, I risk my knees, my back, concussions. I risk things that are probably far more dangerous to me as a young adult than COVID. Why not play?’’’

     The Alabama High School Athletic Association’s current plan is to start fall athletic seasons as scheduled with mandates for face coverings and distancing for people of different households in place. However, two schools — Greene County and Sumter Central — have suspended athletic activities for the first nine weeks of the first semester and another — Barbour County — has canceled its entire 2020-21 athletic schedules.

     Also, Madison Academy was scheduled to host Briarwood Christian Academy in a football season opener Aug. 21, but the schools decided to cancel that game because of the Mustangs’ small visiting bleachers and visiting locker room. 

Huntsville No. 2 for Career Opportunities in COVID-19 Recession

We’re not No. 1, but No. 2 is pretty good.

In a recent study, Huntsville ranked No. 2 among the best places for career opportunities in the COVID-19 recession . SmartAsset analyzed 200 of the largest metro areas across seven metrics related to employment, income and access to professional development through higher education or career counseling.

Huntsville placed in the top 10 of the study for two different categories: It had the sixth-lowest unemployment rate in May 2020, at 7.6 percent, and the eighth-highest income growth over a career, at 30.47 percent.

While the metro area finishes in the bottom half of the study for its low number of career counselors and post-secondary teachers per 1,000 workers, it ranks within the top 50 for its relatively small drop in total employment over the past year (-7.26 percent) and its relatively high 2019 median income (almost $42,000).

The top 10 according to SmartAsset are: College Station-Bryan, Texas; Huntsville; Gainesville, Fla.; Lincoln, Neb.; Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Provo-Orem, Utah; Tallahassee, Fla.; Boulder, Colo; Tucson, Ariz.; and Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz.

SmartAsset is a financial technology company that provides personal finance advice on the web. The company offers free and personalized tools for personal finance decisions around homebuying, retirement, taxes and more.

 

Steak ‘N Shake Brings Back Car Hops for Social Distance Service

While many innovative thinkers in the restaurant business are looking forward to creating ways to operate under social-distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, others are looking retroactively to find their way forward.  

The University Drive location of Huntsville’s Steak ‘n Shake Steakburgers announced it will return to the company’s original “drive-in” model, which fits perfectly with today’s social distancing requirements.

Steak ‘n Shake got its start along Route 66, the first cross-country highway system. Customers drove their cars into a covered parking space where a “car hop”, who was both a waiter and a busboy, took orders from a carousel menu attached to a pole at every parking place. 

Drive-ins consisted of a compact kitchen with a glass window to the outside. There was no indoor dining and the carhop picked up your “burgers and fries” and delivered them to the customer’s vehicle on a clip-on tray that attached to the car’s lowered window. 

Not knowing that nearly 90 years later, customers would be required to stay socially distant, guests ate from their vehicles without having to get out of the car.

That concept is not only a safe business model today with the pandemic, but Steak ‘n Shake is counting on it being a fun experience for older customers who yearn for the “good ole days” and those whose experience with the 1950s comes only from watching the TV show “Happy Days”. 

Steak ‘n Shake is integrating plenty of modern conveniences into the experience including a mobile ordering app and a rewards program. 

Going all in on their roots, customers will pull into a designated car hop parking space denoted by signs of a 45 RPM phonograph record. Using the mobile app, customers place their order, select “Car Hop”, and enter the color and make of their vehicle. They can even pay for their order using the app.

A server will deliver the food on a tray and attach it to the car window, just as they did for decades in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. 

Guests can enjoy their meal in the car or enjoy their food at a socially distanced umbrella-covered picnic tables denoted by an oversized red, white and blue Route 66 sign – a nod to the original Steak ‘n Shake location.

Steak ‘n Shake will also reintroduce their popular Cajun Burger, available exclusively at the Car Hop through the month of August.

Steak ‘n Shake Senior Vice President Steve May said the revival of its historic drive-in service at all restaurants across the U.S. offers customers a safe and fun way to enjoy a meal.

“The Steak ‘n Shake parking lot was the place to be on a Saturday night in the 1950s, with carhops buzzing in between rows of cars filled with families, couples on dates, and teenagers,” May said. “Today’s pandemic world has enabled us to revitalize the drive-in experience with renewed purpose. Our modern version of the drive-in not only reinforces those early days with delivery right to your car – but it also fits perfectly into today’s reality, offering our guests a way to enjoy dining out of the house while still protecting their family’s health.”

“The relaunch of our drive-in service allows us to bring the legacy of our brand to life in an unforgettable way. Ultimately, the return of the car hop allows us to do what we do best – serve customers in a fun way for a memorable dining experience.” 

Steak ‘n Shake began in 1934  in Normal, Ill., and now has more than 500 locations across the United States and globally.

Customers can download the mobile app at https://www.steaknshake.com/rewards/?id=1.

TVA Rescinds ‘Misstep’ to Lay Off IT Workers

The Tennessee Valley Authority has rescinded its decision to lay off information technology workers and outsource their work as part of the restructuring process announced in June.

Interim TVA Board Chair John Ryder and TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash met Thursday with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Discussions included agreement on a shared desire to preserve and grow U.S. jobs.

“We had a positive meeting with the White House and wholeheartedly agree with the administration’s direction on jobs,” said Ryder. “We expressed that our IT restructuring process was faulty and that we have changed direction so that we can ensure American jobs are protected.”

Lyash said the federal agency was wrong in the impact the layoffs would have on its employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were wrong in not fully understanding the impact on our employees, especially during the pandemic,” he said.
“We are taking immediate actions to address this situation. TVA fully understands and supports the administration’s commitment to preserving and growing American jobs.

“TVA will not lose sight of any facet of TVA’s mission of service – providing low-cost, reliable power while also serving to protect American jobs and create economic development across the Tennessee Valley.”

In addition to rescinding all IT organization involuntary Reduction-in-Force notices that occurred in 2020this year, TVA is also reviewing the full scope of contract companies supporting TVA to ensure compliance with the president’s Executive Order on H-1B workers, ensuring that American employees have good opportunities throughout TVA’s employment and supply chain practices.

“TVA has a long legacy of service to the 10 million people across seven states,” said Lyash. “Our mission is clear – delivering low-cost reliable power, economic development and environmental stewardship.

“We are addressing this disappointing misstep and refocusing our commitment on serving our customers and this nation.”

Drake State Unveils Initiatives to Enhance Learning Process

The fall semester at Drake State Community & Technical College begins Aug. 17 and will include online classes, hands-on training and two new quality initiatives to maintain effective learning. 

Hands-on training and in-person instruction will be limited to labs and assessments that cannot be done online, and courses in which students significantly benefit from the classroom setting. All in-person instruction will be in small groups of five or less and will adhere to COVID-19 state requirements and CDC guidelines. 

“With programs like nursing, HVAC and advanced manufacturing it was necessary for us to find a way to conduct hands-on course requirements,” said Dr. Carolyn Henderson, dean of instruction. “We had to be innovative and flexible so we could continue to serve those students.” 

It was equally important for the college to look at ways to make its online classes and virtual student services as effective as in-person. Over the summer, administrators, faculty and staff implemented two significant quality initiatives to help ensure their students’ educational experience is not diminished in the hybrid model – e-certification for online classes and Caring Campus designation. 

“Our students expect quality instruction and a meaningful college experience,” said Drake State President Dr. Patricia Sims. “With our e-certification initiative and Caring Campus designation, we plan to not only meet those expectations, but to exceed them.” 

Full-time faculty have completed online course delivery training modeled after the nationally recognized Quality Matters standards. Quality Matters is a faculty-driven review process that ensures the quality of courses offered in an online or blended format. Instructors will use strategies learned during their training to strengthen the remote learning experience. Once completed, courses can be submitted through a peer-review process for official certification. 

“Aligning with Quality Matters standards will make our online course offerings the highest possible quality,” said Alice Raymond, Office of Innovation and Program Success director and Health Sciences Division chair. “I am wowed by the enthusiasm of the faculty in taking on this very demanding course.” 

Drake State is one of 10 community colleges across the U.S. selected for the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC) Caring Campus Initiative. The program’s objective is to increase student retention and success by helping students over- come non-academic barriers to success and building a strong connection between students and the College. 

Staff are participating in training sessions with IEBC coaches to learn how to use process mapping, student engagement strategies and other intentional practices to strengthen student support services and advance the College’s student success agenda resulting in positive outcomes for students. 

“We’re thrilled to have been selected by the IEBC to participate in this innovative and intentional approach to student engagement,” said Dr. Nicole Bell, interim dean of Student Services. “It’s exciting to see the impact it can have on our students and their academic success.”