Rhythm of the Air: VBC Partners with TVA and Huntsville Utilities to Improve Air Quality

The Von Braun Center has teamed with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Huntsville Utilities on a project to improve the air quality for one of the VBC’s newest additions, Rhythm on Monroe.

By implementing germicidal technology, the project includes replacing the current air filters with higher efficiency filters and installing UV-C germicidal lighting inside the venue’s HVAC systems.

“We’re always looking for different ways to enhance our facility,” said Johnny Hunkapiller, VBC director of Operations. “This installation adds an extra layer of safety and allows our guests and staff to feel more comfortable while inside our building.”

UV-C lighting is an ultraviolet light that renders microorganisms inactive. Commonly used in hospitals and laboratories, it also has been used in a variety of applications, such as food, air, and water purification systems.

UV-C technology is ideal for restaurants and other public facilities where maintaining a high level of air quality is essential.

“Although everyone has their minds on the current pandemic, this technology will remove myriad contagions for a long time to come,” said Joe Gehrdes, director of Community Relations for Huntsville Utilities. “We are grateful for our relationship with the VBC and TVA, and this opportunity through EnergyRight.”

TVA provides incentives to businesses and schools to install the UV-C germicidal lights and the agency provides financial incentives for approved UV technologies.

“The pandemic increased the awareness of cleanliness and hygiene around the world and TVA is pleased that we can assist, through a partnership with Huntsville Utilities, by offering an incentive for this technology,” said Brent May, TVA EnergyRight Business & Industry Program Manager, Alabama District. “UVGI systems are helpful to a wide range of businesses, including facilities like the VBC, where numerous public events take place.”

“The health and safety of our staff and guests are always our top priority,” said Samantha Nielsen, manager of Marketing and Public Relations for the VBC. “We’re proud to partner with TVA and Huntsville Utilities in our continued effort to provide a safe and clean facility to our guests, and we’re excited to incorporate this lighting technology into our systems.”

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/


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.”

Madison Crossings Senior Community Slated to Open in Spring

MADISON – Madison Crossings, a Phoenix Senior Living community, will offer senior living services with  personalized care and luxury-style accommodations with a comfortable, smalltown feel.

The 132-unit senior living community on County Line Road will provide independent and memory care units. It is slated to open next spring.

“We are thrilled to once again partner with Phoenix Senior Living for the development of Madison Crossings,” said Dean Kirilukchief investment officer for Kirco, a real estate development and construction company. “This marks our second project with the company in the state of Alabama, where our dedicated team is applying our unparalleled development and construction experience to help create optimal living environments for the underserved senior market.”

Madison Crossings offers independent living, memory care, respite care and senior day programs.

“We are pleased to work in partnership with Kirco and Kirco Manix as they share our unwavering commitment to offering best-in-class senior living options focused primarily on the well-being of the residents, their families and our associates,” said Jesse Marinko, founder and CEO of Phoenix Senior Living. “We are very excited to expand our footprint in Alabama. Our continued and strategic growth allows Phoenix to invest into our organization’s human capital and creates jobs throughout the Southeast for individuals who are passionate and bring a servant heart to the organization.

“Our organization was recently certified as a Great Place to Work which is a direct reflection of our ongoing commitment to our associates.”

The facility will include 105 independent apartments and 27 specialized apartments for memory care. Amenities will include an outdoor pool; wellness center; industry-leading dining experience; beauty salon and spa; yoga studio; and pickle ball court. Visit www.phoenixsrliving.com/madisoncrossings/.

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.’’

City Schools Facing Staffing Shortage Due to COVID-19; 3 Schools Temporarily Close

Three Huntsville City Schools closed campus classrooms Wednesday and returned to remote learning until at least Friday.

The move wasn’t made because of an increase in positive COVID-19 tests, but because multiple staff members went into self-quarantine.

The three schools are Columbia, Lee and New Century Technology.

The system began the school year with virtual learning 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,” said Huntsville City Schools spokesman Craig Williams.

“Transitioning a school into remote learning is now something we’re familiar with, something we did at the beginning of the school year. It’s something both students and staff have a comfort level with.”

While classrooms are closed, the three schools will offer curbside meals for students.

According to Williams, school officials will assess the situation Friday and inform students and parents whether or not campus will reopen Monday or later.

Teachers not in quarantine will continue to teach virtual classes from school.

“They’re not congregating, they’re not gathering in one area out of an abundance of caution to make sure we’re following those safety guidelines,” Williams said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also stressed the availability of substitute teachers.

“It’s definitely worse than it’s been in the past relative to the sub shortage because of COVID,” Williams said. “I think some individuals are hesitant not only to be around other people but be around children.”

Anyone interested in becoming a substitute teacher can apply at the Huntsville City Schools website. 

COVID Cases and Hospitalization Increasing; State Sees Biggest Single-Day Rise

As fall nears the midseason point and with flu season fast approaching the novel coronavirus cases statewide and nationally continue to rise.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, the number of confirmed positive tests for the virus reached a single-day record 103,000  across the country by Wednesday night with a death total of 1,116. Also Wednesday, Alabama saw its biggest single-day rise in confirmed cases with 1,848.

The number of hospitalizations has increased in North Alabama and Madison County as well.

Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said there are currently 161 patients around the region with 78 in Huntsville Hospital and 10 in Crestwood Medical Center; 16 patients are in ICU and eight are on ventilators.

“We had an additional 18 patients in the Huntsville facility in the last two weeks,” Spillers said Wednesday during the weekly COVID-19 press briefing. “In the region the numbers are at about what they were two weeks ago, so most of the increase you’re seeing across North Alabama right now is in Madison County,”

Statewide, as of Wednesday night, the total number of confirmed cases was 197,777 with 3,006 deaths. The numbers in Madison County were 9,959 cases and 102 deaths.

Spillers reminded everyone the virus remains highly dangerous.

“Ten percent of the patients who are hospitalized tend to die from this disease,’’ he said. “It is still a very deadly disease for those who are admitted to the hospital. That has changed very little since it started.’’

Spillers said models suggest a spike of the recent surge will arrive in late November or early December.

But, he said, “I have no idea what those numbers will be.’’

The spike could arrive along with a surge in flu cases.

“I want to encourage everyone to get a flu shot, we’re seeing not a lot of flu, but we’re seeing enough flu that it’s creating a problem,’’ Spillers said. “We assume they have COVID until we determine that they don’t have COVID.”

With Thanksgiving and the holidays on the way, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong urged people to continue practicing safeguards.

“It is vital that we all remain focused on protecting ourselves and our families from contracting this virus,’’ he said.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and reported by the Associated Press, daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have surged 45 percent over the past two weeks to a record seven-day average of 86,352. Deaths are also on the rise, up 15 percent to an average of 846 every day.

The total U.S. death toll is more than 232,000, and total confirmed U.S. cases have surpassed 9 million. Those are the highest totals in the world, and new infections are increasing in nearly every state.

Local COVID-19 Cases Jump 50% over September

With Election Day less than a week away and holiday gatherings on the horizon, local officials reported an alarming statistic Wednesday – coronavirus cases are up 50 percent compared to September.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have increased to more than 1,000; there are 178 inpatients in the Huntsville area with 32 in ICU; and, in Madison County, there are 90 inpatients with 24 in ICU and 11 on ventilators.

These bleak numbers come before Tuesday’s Election Day and Hudson offers advice to voters.

“I hope everyone will exercise their citizen’s right and duty to vote,” Hudson said during the weekly COVID-19 press conference at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “I have one real suggestion — different from the masking and the social distancing and sanitization — and that is be patient. If it’s crowded, wait.

“Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to wait until the line goes lower or if you see people not being compliant, wait in your car and then go in.’’

In addition to wearing facial coverings at polling sites — Hudson said recent studies indicate mask wearing cuts down the risk of contracting the virus by 40 percent. She also suggested voters wear gloves.

Recent dashboard figures released by the state have 187,706 confirmed virus cases with 2,911 deaths statewide. In Madison County, those numbers are 9,467 and 98.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said a possible surge was expected with schools re-opening, churches holding in-person meetings and the expiration of the alcohol sales curfew.

“It’s not an easy thing to get through,” he said. “This virus is hanging on like a rusty fish hook. I mean, it’s just hanging in there and it keeps coming back.”

Johns Hopkins University, a leader in tracking the coronavirus, reports there have been more than 40 million cases worldwide with more than 1 million deaths. The United States has seen nearly 9 million cases and 227,000 deaths.

Hudson agreed with Battle in that the local case surge coincides with increased travel and social gatherings since October began.

She also urged people to get a flu vaccination to reduce the stress on hospitals and health personnel during a time of the year when they’re busier because of flu and other respiratory illnesses.

“… What we’re seeing from COVID-19, the hospitals would be busy even without COVID-19 right now with the respiratory problems and other problems that you find in the hospital,” Battle said. “We as a community have to protect ourselves.”