The COVID-19 Endgame: Questions & Analysis From UAH Business School

Huntsville is accustomed to goal-oriented missions.

When it was determined that our healthcare system could be overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients in North Alabama, Madison County residents and business owners took unprecedented steps to follow state and federal guidelines for social distancing. They closed their businesses and sheltered at home to help flatten the curve against exposure to the virus.

Beijing factory workers maintain social distancing during lunch breaks.

Under all discernible yet cautious reporting, COVID-19 cases seem to be waning and our hospitals seem to be buffered against the threat.

Mission accomplished. Goals achieved.

But this mission is different from any other. At what costs have we seen success? What does an economic recovery following this pandemic look like? When will it occur? How long will it take to get back to “normal”? Will there ever be a “normal” or will it change us forever?

These are the questions posed to Wafa Hakim Orman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the College of Business & Associate Professor of Economics and Computational Analysis at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this week during a teleconference call with the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce.

“Economically, things are very bad right now,” said Orman “The problem is our normal indicator models don’t do us much good because they are monthly or quarterly.”

For instance, the national labor force is around 164 million. Before the pandemic started, unemployment was about 3.5 percent. The April unemployment rate was 14.7 percent.

Compared to the financial crisis of 2008, this is off the charts. Even when compared it to the Great Depression of 1929, unemployment was high, but the fall-off was gradual, not all at once.

“The country has never seen anything like it. It is completely unprecedented,” said Orman. “There are however some alternative indicators available if we look for them and one of those is electricity demand.

“The Department of Energy provides hourly indicators on electricity demand and you can tell if commercial establishments are shutting down because electricity use will be lower. Based on up-to-the-minute indicators provided by University of Chicago economist Steve Cicala, electricity use has plummeted, and this information has been adjusted to allow for temperature, weather patterns, and holidays.”

Electricity demand should be at the February average of 2 percent. After March 15, it dropped precipitously to nearly -8 percent.

“I did a similar analysis for the areas covered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, because that’s the smallest scale at which we can get this electricity data for our region, and the results are very similar,” she said.

Another alternative source of data comes from a website called Homebase.com.

“They provide timesheets and scheduling software and they have very helpfully made aggregates of what they’re seeing available on their website,” Orman said. “You can see the impact on local business from their customer base looking at hours worked. Again, we see a sharp decline, and when you look at it by industry, this provides us with something I think we should be paying a lot of attention to as we think about reopening.”

Orman believes the businesses that are seeing the biggest declines are likely to be those people will be the most reluctant to go back to after reopening.

“As an economist, what we have is essentially a major shock to aggregate demand,” she said. “And it creates this tension. We need to save lives by shutting down, but we also face terrible consequences from the economic shutdown. Increases in unemployment, increases in poverty, and all the negatives we know are associated with recessions, are really intensified in a short period of time right now.”

While the number appear to be flattening the curve and social distancing seems to have been a successful strategy for slowing the spread of the virus, the long-term effects are unknown. Orman however presents some ideas for discussion.

“And it is completely implausible that we just wait for some bell to ring that tells us the virus is no longer a threat. That is impossible. It will have to be a phased reopening but how does that unfold?” she asks.

She admits a slow, limping back to normal over a prolonged period is difficult to assess at this point because IF we begin to reopen the economy to some non-essential businesses, we risk seeing another spike in infections and that will be bad news that affects further openings.

And there are yet other considerations equally as concerning.

“What businesses will people actually go back to and what businesses are likely to continue to suffer, even after we reopen,” she said. “Looking at data from Homebase.com, home and repair and transportation don’t involve much contact so people will probably be quite happy to see those reopen.”

Orman believes there will be some pent-up demand with people stuck in their houses for a couple of months. They will want to go to a restaurant, buy things they have been needing or wanting, take a hiking trip, go camping, or attend a social gathering at a local venue. People will be able to get a leak in their roof fixed or plant their spring garden, but what about professional services?

She points out it may be a while before people are comfortable with touching gym equipment someone else has been using; getting a manicure, a massage, or even a haircut because it requires a lot of personal contact with another person.

“And what about the food and beverage industry,” she asks. “We’re talking about opening restaurants, but they will have to deal with capacity. They still will not be able to employ as many workers as they did before, leaving some unemployed.”

During the pandemic, automation and teleconferencing has replaced in-person contact so although many industries have been using self-checkout counters and teleconferencing software as a back-up, how many jobs will be lost to fully-automated services; how much business travel will be cut in lieu of online meetings; and how many office jobs will move to telework?

There is also a question mark concerning education.

“Students are being forced to adapt to online learning, including elementary school and kindergarten. Those that can move online, have done so, but education at the lower grade levels like kindergarten through 12th grade may be online this semester; but what happens to other educational activities like afterschool programs, sports, tutoring, music, and extracurricular activities like summer camp?

Subway passengers maintain social distancing.

“How long will it be before people are comfortable sitting in a crowded movie theater, attending a concert, or other events that involve large numbers of people in one place,” she poses.

She will not be surprised if relatively high unemployment remains for a while as people don’t get rehired such as teachers aides, personal trainers, and extra restaurant workers.

Orman said at that point, unemployed workers will continue to be a drag on GDP.

“By fall, that’s starting to get far enough in the future that although difficult to predict, I think the best we can do is an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario,” she said.

“In the optimistic scenario, our healthcare system can put in place widespread contact tracing and widespread testing, so if someone is diagnosed, we treat them and everybody they’ve been in contact with. Those people are quarantined but everybody else can go back to normal.

In that scenario she said it is also possible to develop the so-called herd immunity – that once enough people have the coronavirus, it is not such a problem anymore.

“Most businesses open, and we can realistically hope hiring and spending start to increase. This is happening in China where they are experiencing a V-shaped recovery for manufacturing that’s taking off but again, tourism and personal service industries are much, much slower.”

In the pessimistic scenario, she said we do not yet have widespread contact tracing and testing and the virus spikes back up. In this scenario it will be like the 1918 influenza virus that started out relatively mild in the spring of 1918, then surged with a vengeance in the fall of that year.

“Pandemics and epidemics have throughout history, resulted in big long-term changes to society and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the same with this one,” said Orman. “And how soon economic recovery takes place depends on what American society is willing to live with.”

That requires compliance.

“This is a free country. We prize our freedoms, so will we submit to required testing on a regular basis, or being told you need to be in quarantine because of someone you’ve been in contact with has contracted the disease and you need to be quarantined for two weeks, even if you’re not feeling sick?

“I think some people will and some people won’t. Initially there will be a strong sense of public spiritedness so people will comply, but eventually people will get tired of it, so compliance will probably be an issue.”

And will widespread mask-wearing make sense, and will people comply with it? Orman said it’s hard to see how it won’t become standard at this point, but how will people feel about it in the long-term?”

Orman shared three very telling images from China taken after they reopened their economy.

The differences are stark of Chinese factory workers maintaining 6-foot social distancing while enjoying lunch at a manufacturing plant looks more like an image from a prison.

One image shows a sparsely populated subway in Beijing with passengers sitting 6 feet apart in a car that is usually very crowded.

And perhaps the most telling picture of all – a wedding, where aside from the bride and groom, everyone in the wedding party, including the photographer, are wearing masks.

After seeing these images – to what extent are people going to be comfortable with this and for how long?

“These are still the probing questions,” Orman said.

Cummings Aerospace to Build State-of-the-Art HQ at Redstone Gateway

Cummings Aerospace announced it is moving its headquarters to the growing Redstone Gateway development. The new corporate headquarters, 7100 Redstone Gateway, will be able to accommodate Cummings Aerospace’s multiple business functions under one roof

“We’re excited for our employees as we consolidate into a new corporate headquarters at Redstone Gateway,” said Cummings Aerospace President & CEO Sheila Cummings. “This new facility will allow us to continue to serve our customers with the highest level of service within close proximity.

“This move reflects our commitment to the future of our employees, our customers, and our company.”

Corporate Office Properties Trust executed a 46,000 square foot build-to-suit lease with Cummings, a Native American Woman-Owned Small Business. The facility is anticipated to be operational during the first quarter of 2021.

“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to support Cummings Aerospace’s continued success, and to welcome another leading Huntsville based company to Redstone Gateway,” said COPT President & CEO Steve Budorick. “This decision reaffirms Redstone Gateway’s unrivaled combination of efficiency, convenience, walkable amenities, and access to important commands at Redstone Arsenal.”

Booz Allen to Award Grants for Solutions to COVID-19 Impact

Huntsville gets a chance to do what she does best: combine her creative thinking skills, her complex problem-solving expertise, and advanced technology capabilities to find ways to combat the wide-ranging negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These opportunities arise from an Innovation Fund created by the Booz Allen Foundation. The fund will award up to $1 million in grants to help nonprofits, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, innovators at colleges and universities, startup companies, and small businesses, harness the power of data, technology, and diverse intellectual capital, to improve COVID-19 relief efforts. The foundation wants to bring to the surface the most innovative solutions, while empowering individuals and small businesses behind those solutions towards development and implementation.

The two main areas of focus for the funding are finding solutions that build community resilience, while protecting vulnerable populations and frontline workers; and ways in which workers can return to work safely.

Booz Allen is looking for new technologies, new ways to collect data, a new way to develop personal protective equipment, and new social connection methods – all with the goal of eliminating the negative impact of the pandemic.

The grants will be awarded to the best ideas for creating systems, products and technologies; and finding new approaches, delivery systems, or processes.

“We are seeking the most innovative solutions to the unimaginable challenges that our world faces today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Nancy Laben, co-founding board member of the Booz Allen Foundation. “Through the Innovation Fund, the Booz Allen Foundation seeks to empower individuals and organizations with resources to truly change the world and bring to life their brightest solutions in support of the most vulnerable among us as we navigate this unprecedented time together.”

Applications must be submitted by June 5 to be eligible and will include answers to a brief set of questions about how your solution or project will solve an urgent social problem or build community resilience in the wake of COVID-19.

Awards will be announced in July.

Nonprofits can apply for grants of up to $100,000. Individuals, teams of individuals, nonprofits and small businesses can apply for microgrants of up to $10,000. Certain eligibility requirements apply.

To start the application process, visit https://boozallenfoundation.org/innovationfund-application/.

The Booz Allen Foundation was created in 2017 as an independent 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to convening diverse stakeholders to solve challenging social issues.

On April 1, the Booz Allen Foundation and Booz Allen Hamilton launched a coordinated philanthropic initiative to address pandemic-related issues, including initial giving to address the immediate needs of vulnerable local populations through the Feeding America network of food banks and community-based agencies. The launch of the Innovation Fund continues the foundation’s ongoing support for communities impacted by COVID-19.

 

RCP, gener8tor Announce Emergency Response Program for Artists, Musicians

RCP Companies, developer of MidCity District, and gener8tor have launched an initiative supporting Huntsville artists, musicians and others affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Under the Huntsville Emergency Response Program, artists, musicians and others in creative crafts will have access to a free, week-long webinar series designed to identify and leverage critical resources in order to weather this ongoing public health crisis.

As a part of the program, participants will be provided with daily webinars featuring experts in the following areas:

  • ​Employment law experts to help navigate unemployment applications and benefits;
  • CARES Act guidance and resources;
  • How to take your business online;
  • Navigating and utilizing TikTok;
  • Mental health and wellness resources for small business owners; and
  • A listening session with a national industry professional.

In addition to webinars, gener8tor will host dedicated, daily one-on-one consultations for small businesses to meet digitally with business advisors. The gener8tor team will be working one-on-one with companies to address the various issues small businesses are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gener8tor will also work with community groups interested in providing pro bono resources to small businesses.

To register, visit  www.gener8tor.com/emergency-response-program/Huntsville. The deadline is Monday, May 4 at 10:59 a.m. CST.

The program runs from May 4-8 and all Huntsville-based businesses artists, musicians and creatives are welcome to apply.

“Understanding the myriad of resources available to our creative community is paramount to enabling our artists and musicians to continue working,” said Max Grelier, cofounder of RCP. “Having a step-by-step, tailored seminar allows the policy experts to provide guidance. We are incredibly appreciative of our friends at gener8tor and hope that our creative community can continue to create while utilizing this excellent resource.”

Joe Kigues, gener8tor cofounder, said, “We have seen firsthand the impact that entrepreneurs have on a community, and we hope to call on our network of mentors, investors and partners to support small business owners through this new Emergency Response Program.”

Small Business Development Center Hosting Webinar on Disaster Loans, PPP

You have questions, they have answers.

The Alabama Small Business Development Center is hosting a mini-town hall Q&A webinar today at 11 a.m.

For information on small businesses, visit asbdc.org.

The webinar will include any news / updates on the SBA Disaster Loan & Paycheck Protection Program, but will focus on Questions & Answers from participants. To register, click here: Friday, 4/24, 11AM

The On-Demand recorded webinar can be accessed here.

 

Facebook Launches $100M Small Business Grant Program

To support COVID-19 relief efforts in the Huntsville Data Center community, Facebook has launched a Small Business grant program.

Facebook is building a 970,000 square-foot data center in the North Huntsville Industrial Park. It was scheduled to be operational this year but construction has slowed due to the pandemic.

For the grant program, here is the link to apply.  When you click on the available location list, select Huntsville, AL/Madison County from the drop-down menu. You will then be taken to a partner page for the application component.

The application will be open until midnight May 6.

To be eligible, the business must have these qualifications:

  • Be a for-profit company
  • Have between 2 and 50 employees
  • Have been in business for over a year
  • Have experienced challenges from COVID-19
  • Be in or near a location where Facebook operates

Facebook invites businesses to join an overview of the Facebook Small Business Grant program, and to learn more about what Facebook is doing to support our communities as we navigate these unprecedented times.

To sign up for one of the two training sessions we are offering, click the corresponding link below:

Monday, April 27 at 10 a.m. CST

Register Here

Tuesday, April 28 at 11:30 a.m. CST

Register Here

Area Coffee Shops Brew Up New Concepts to Stay in Business

In the looming shadow of COVID 19, local coffee establishments have been persevering; making “nip and tuck” adjustments, as necessary. Some have scaled back their hours along with their menus; some have reduced staffing hours or have furloughed staff.

Just Love Coffee just loves to make lunch and dinner, also.

Others have added online merchandise sales to help keep their businesses and their talented crew afloat. Most have applied a variety of strategies.

Thus far, whatever they’re doing seems to be working.

While business may not be as brisk as it was pre-March 30, several bean-centric establishments have been holding their own.

Behind Lowe Mill lies Gold Sprint Coffee, serving as a caffeinated oasis for the telecommuter. A relative newcomer, Gold Sprint has yet to celebrate its first year in business.

Although Gold Sprint’s quirky trophies-meet-stuffed-trash-panda-riding-a-trike interior remains closed for the duration, customers can easily order at the window or call ahead for curbside pickup.

Out of sheer necessity, Gold Sprint owner Victor Burlingame reduced the hours of operation, along with the menu offerings and staff hours.

“We’re 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 9 to 5 Sunday,” said Burlingame. “We scaled back on the number of people per shift. We had to cut hours back to make it work.”

Burlingame has also been promoting “Sprint Swag,” such as shirts and mugs, both for sale on-site and online. He says the merchandise has been a big hit.

“We’ve had people from Brazil, New York, and Colorado ordering,” said Burlingame. Which made him wonder, “Like, how do you know about us?”

Honest Coffee Roasters, the embedded gem of the Clinton Avenue parking garage was proactive in response to the April 4 mandate.

Managing partner Christy Graves posted a video on Facebook explaining the changes, providing audio-visual reinforcement for her customer base. To serve the community without allowing them inside, Honest adjusted its operations and product delivery; customers can now choose from curbside, pickup, or delivery.

“We have shortened our hours just a little bit – to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week,” said Graves. “Curbside is available and is really easy to use. You can order online, full menu all day. We also have our partnership with GrubSouth and now we’ve added Door Dash as an additional delivery option.”

Just Love Coffee in Times Plaza on South Memorial Parkway was open less than a month when COVID 19 became its unfortunate reality. Despite the surprise setback, Just Love has maintained its operating hours and their menu is an all-day affair.

“We maintained our hours throughout this whole thing,” said Travis Duehring, owner. “We open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“We serve our full menu all day long. You can get ice cream at 6 a.m. or spinach salad at 6 a.m.”

Just Love has a staff of 22 part-time employees; all of whom are still on the payroll.

“Our team is wonderful,” said Duehring. “They all sacrificed for each other and everyone gave hours to those who needed it most.”

In addition to in-store takeout, curbside pickup, online ordering, and delivery, Just Love recently partnered with other area businesses for on-site prepared box lunches, all delivered straight to your door.

Offbeat Coffee Studio, the place where coffee pairs with recorded vinyl at Campus 805, reluctantly furloughed their crew, leaving owners Kyle and Anna Lee Husband to run the business themselves. They have also scaled back their operating hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.

Offbeat is using the @cloosiv app and is open for take-out, curbside pick-up, and GrubSouth delivery. Additionally, Offbeat has added online merchandise sales to help sustain its business and support their crew.

Established in 1996, Olde Towne Coffee is for takeout only. Call-ahead and the staff will have the order ready upon arrival.

The long-established Five Points coffee go-to scaled back their hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week. Olde Towne is still offering a full menu; their bakery goods are astonishing, to say the least. Along with brewed coffee, espresso drinks, and assorted menu items, one can buy bulk coffee by the pound and select from one of the many bottles of flavoring syrups that are available for purchase.

There have been discernable shifts in peak customer traffic since March. Burlingame and Duehring have both observed new patterns in customer behavior.

Gold Sprint normally caters to the teleworking community. Since orders are now curbside pickups or at the window, there has been a shift to morning customers, coupled with a late afternoon “pick me up” crowd. The usual, midmorning rush of telecommuters is almost non-existent.

“Strangely enough, our crowd really was kind of late morning, around 9 or 10 a.m., and it was slammed,” said Burlingame. “And now, it’s like just the morning and in the afternoon. In the middle is kind of ‘there’.”

“Prior to this [COVID 19], we would have customers first thing when we opened,” said Duehring. “Our normal morning rush was 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the lunch rush.” Although in the past, customers would be waiting at the door when they opened, “My peak times are now from 10 a.m. till about 1 p.m. and then we get another small rush about 3 p.m.”

Given the unique nature of the present circumstances, the future is cloudy for business owners, at least for the time being. Despite the uncertainties, there remains the undercurrent of resiliency and “can-do” spirit.

“We want to keep coffee in your hands, keep us in business, and still get to see the people we care about,” said Graves. “We appreciate you guys more than anything.”

Chamber Launches GetYourGiftOn.Org to Support Local Restaurants and Stores

If you were not hungry before, you will be after visiting the new GetYourGiftOn.org website (https://www.getyourgifton.org/), launched by the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce in support of local small businesses, especially restaurants and retail establishments.

The website features retail and dining establishments which can quickly and easily upload detailed information about their business, including any promotional offers and specials; new and limited business hours; whether or not they offer curbside or delivery options (even if they didn’t offer it before); and links to online gift cards that can be used to order food or goods, or that can be given to someone else as gift.

Searchable by neighborhood, it is easy for businesses to take part by clicking the “Submit a Business” link at the top of the site and filling out the information. That information goes to the Chamber to be verified and could go live within a couple of hours if not sooner.

There is no cost for businesses to be added and Chamber membership is not required to participate.

“Maybe your company never thought about offering gift cards or just hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber. “This makes it really easy, and that was our intent – to keep it really simple and make it very attractive.”

For businesses that do not offer gift cards, there are options available.

  • Instagift, an Alabama-based e-gift card service, is  waiving monthly fees for any Huntsville signups;
  • Gift Up is waiving its 3.49 percent fee on the first $5,000 of gift card sales.

For businesses with e-gift cards and using platforms such as Square, they can be easily and quickly linked.

The Chamber has been brainstorming ways to help support local businesses during this unprecedented shutdown and heard about a site called LocalDistancing.com in Birmingham.

Inspired by three childhood friends and entrepreneurs Vince Perez, Dylan Spencer, and Trey Oliver, the Chamber asked them for help in building a sister site in Huntsville based on the same premise.

According to Cape, it was a labor of love working with them to get the site up quickly, and to provide such an easy format so business owners can add themselves to the site and be up and running almost immediately.

“Please pass along the word about GetYourGiftOn.org and encourage every retail or restaurant owner you know to add their information to the site,” said Cape. “We expect to add a lot more vendors to the site in the coming days so if there is a business you haven’t been to lately; or if you know of a business or restaurant in your neighborhood that should be using the site, be sure and let them and the Chamber know so we can get them up as soon as possible.

“Remember that even though we may be losing track of dates these days, we have not canceled holidays and Mother’s Day is coming up May 10. Maybe you are checking in with your mom, but not able to visit. You can still send her a gift. Go to GetYourGiftOn.org and buy her an online gift card to somewhere to eat or to her favorite retail store.

Because the website is new, the Chamber is seeking feedback to provide improvements and updates.

 

HudsonAlpha Company, Local Business Working to Address Health-Care Disparities in America

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a long-standing problem to the forefront – racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

Reports show that African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate than other races. Louisiana reported African Americans account for 70 percent of coronavirus-related deaths. DC reported 58 percent and Michigan reported 42 percent, a state where African Americans only make up 14 percent of the population.

“There have been a number of articles about the need to collect racial and ethnic data for COVID-19,” said Tiffany Jordan, chief development officer at Acclinate Genetics, a minority-owned, Huntsville-based company that strives to achieve health equity and personalized health care for all by diversifying genomic data and clinical research.

“Yes, we need to utilize the data collected to create a strategy, a strategy that will allow us to overcome some of the current health inequalities. These inequalities are currently impacting the care people receive and that is not fair.”

Tiffany Jordan: “These inequalities are currently impacting the care people receive and that is not fair.”

Jordan said this is also an awareness issue.

“We must ensure that minorities are properly educated on the past medical injustices and the rapidly advancing pharmaceutical industry,” she said. “We need to encourage minorities to ask the right questions and play a role in creating a solution for generations to come.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently discussed the lack of health equity and the importance of educating the African American community about their risk.

“My office, long before COVID-19, has been talking about health equity and the need to help people understand when they’re at risk and to actually intervene,” said Adams. “We know that blacks are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, lung disease.

“I and many black Americans are at higher risk for COVID, which is why we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread.”

Acclinate Genetics helps bio-pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations achieve the most representative research sample by expanding their genomic studies and clinical trials to include diverse ethnic groups.

“Having the data is one thing,” said Jordan. “Doing something with the data is something much greater.”

Creating the actionable, personalized analysis of the data is why Acclinate Genetics is partnering with RippleWorx, Inc., a Huntsville-based, SaaS (Software as a Service) company.

RippleWorx provides a holistic approach to human performance by analyzing cognitive and physiological data and using machine-learning to solve complex problems, such as when are athletes at their peak performance and when are they susceptible to injury.

Timo Sandritter: “We can’t have a ‘one shoe fits all’ philosophy under health care, or anywhere else for that matter. “

“Partnering with RippleWorx was a no-brainer,” said Jordan. “Their team of experts is already looking at this type of data to determine what affects people more – identifying factors that keep people from performing at their best – physically and mentally.”

Dr. Timo Sandritter, president and co-founder of RippleWorx, firmly believes in this mission for equity in health care.

“We can’t have a ‘one shoe fits all’ philosophy under health care, or anywhere else for that matter,” he said. “We need to ensure that we service the groups that need it and where they need it. We are quick to celebrate our differences in many ways.

“We also need to embrace a health-care system that’s tailored toward those needs.”

Together, Acclinate Genetics and RippleWorx, are ready to fight war on equality in all areas, whether it’s COVID-19, or in future health-care needs, so each race is accurately represented and data and results are comprehensive.

Huntsville Hospital Finds Partner for Test Kits; Preparing For Peak in Cases

The Huntsville Hospital Health System recently signed an agreement with a wholesaler to supply 200 COVID-19 test kits a day, CEO David Spillers said. The agreement allows the hospital to process kits in its own lab every day, beginning late this week or early next week.

“One of the problems we have been facing is getting access to labs,” Spillers said. “We have the ability to test for COVID-19, but we don’t have the supplies needed to do as much testing as we need.”

On a daily small business teleconference call at the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce this week, Spillers gave an overall situational analysis of where his hospital chain is in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spillers said there are 800 patients in the hospital and eight of them are confirmed COVID-19 patients. A single COVID-19 inpatient requires 10 times as many resources as a regular patient, Spillers said.

He said some 116 patients across the entire hospital system are waiting for testing results, which can take 24 to 48 hours. Until they know the results, they must treat those 116 patients as if they are positive, even though most of them will be negative.

“In the meantime, we’re consuming massive amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) resources like gowns, face shields, N95 surgical masks and gloves.” Spillers said. “This new agreement will allow us to turn those 116 patients around faster because we won’t have to wait so long for lab results.

“That will get those testing negative off the resources utilization train.”

Thousands of people tested

Spillers said the Huntsville Hospital system has tested thousands of patients over the last two weeks thanks to testing centers set up in the area. Last Friday, he said they tested close to 600 patients in Huntsville, which is why the positives are going up.

“The more people we test, the more positives we’re going to find,” he said. “Right now, luckily, the number of inpatients is not going up nearly as fast as we were expecting, but that still might happen. Obviously, our fear is an influx of COVID-19 patients.”

A higher than normal use rate is what concerns him.

“You’ve seen the curves on the chart where the trend line sort of goes up slowly and then peaks,” Spillers said. “Well, we’re still on the slow part of the slope and looking at several models, it will be somewhere around two weeks before we reach our peak.”

He said testing is important and by the time they reach that peak, they expect the number of patients to be higher.

“You can see how if we find ourselves with 100 COVID-19 patients, what an enormous amount of resources that will consume,” he said.

One of the first steps was deferring all elective surgeries in the regional hospitals in Athens, Decatur, Helen Keller and Red Bay.

Businesses step up to produce equipment

Spillers also said the outreach from companies to make needed protective equipment, such as face shields and masks, is overwhelming.

“We’ll take all the help we can get right now because our normal supply chains are broken,” he said. “The shipments for a lot of this stuff comes from overseas, and a lot of it’s going to hot spots in the country like New Orleans and New York and other places.

“This disruption in our supply chain means we’re not getting what we would normally get. We have gone off our purchasing contracts to try to buy stuff that was just out there, and we were able to acquire some masks – in fact we should get some more masks in later this week to help shore up our supplies.”

Several entities have stepped up and the Huntsville Madison County Chamber of Commerce is leading the way by helping coordinate community businesses that believe they can help by making some of the needed supplies and PPE.

Spillers said the help is much needed because his supply staff doesn’t have time to run down the dozens of different opportunities people are offering.

“Right now, we have Toyota Manufacturing meeting with some of our supply people to look at some things they think they can make,” said Spillers. “We have had people say they think they can 3-D print some supplies and a lot of people wanting to see the individual equipment to determine whether they can make it, how fast and how many.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a situation where we’re going to get too much of anything, but if we do, we will make sure we get it to some other area in need.”

Businesses that want to contribute should contact Lucia Cape, the Chamber’s senior vice president for economic development, industry relations and workforce, at 256-535-2033 or visit https://hsvchamber.org/category/news/covid-19/.