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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/

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.

Kailos Genetics Launches COVID-19 Testing Program for Safe Workplaces

Kailos Genetics announces the launch of Assure Sentinel, a first-of-its-kind workplace viral suppression program that tests organizations for COVID-19 on a frequent and recurring basis.

The Assure Sentinel program reduces the challenges of COVID-19 testing in the workplace, according to a statement from Huntsville-based Kailos Genetics.

Samples are acquired using a painless saliva collection system, eliminating the need for nasopharyngeal swabs. Additionally, testing is performed with ViralPatch, the company’s proprietary viral capture and sample pooling methodology, and next generation DNA sequencing to decrease costs and increase testing sensitivity.

“Pooling dozens of samples together has been standard in blood banking for decades,” said Kailos Genetics CEO Brian Pollock. “The Assure Sentinel program is helping to suppress COVID-19 and returning people to the workplace.”

Regular COVID-19 testing can mean a reduction in employee anxiety and a rise in confidence and productivity.

“Safety is, and has always been, our number one priority during the pandemic, and the Assure Sentinel program is helping us continue to ensure the safety and well-being of our employees,” said Julia Michaux-Watkins, Director of Human Resources at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Kailos is offering the workplace testing program to companies, nonprofit organizations and schools directly and via partnerships with healthcare organizations. The first partnerships include Huntingdon College in Montgomery and HudsonAlpha.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Huntingdon College identified access to testing as a key element to our ability to responsibly reopen our campus to our students, faculty and staff for the fall,” said Jay Dorman, Treasurer and Senior Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness, Planning and Administration at Huntingdon College. “We have been fortunate to find an Alabama-based partner to provide a reasonably priced, efficient testing option, which has been critical in successfully mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on our campus.”

Founded in 2010 and located at HudsonAlpha, Kailos Genetics is a genetic sequencing company that provides genetic and COVID-19 testing through partnerships with physicians, health systems and employers around the world.

COVID-19 Continues to Impact High School Football Games

Florence High School’s football team received a forfeit more than a week ago when Bob Jones pulled out of two games in the wake of nine players testing positive for the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

The Falcons have since returned the favor to the Patriots’ crosstown Madison rival James Clemens.

Florence forfeited Friday’s game to Brentwood (Tenn.) after three players tested positive for the virus, and also announced a forfeit to the Jets this Friday while the team remains isolated until Oct. 5.

Meanwhile, James Clemens received a Friday night forfeit from Lee when Huntsville City Schools announced multiple Generals were in quarantine.

In a different twist, Briarwood Christian of Birmingham received a forfeit from Mortimer Jordan, so the Lions traveled to Madison to play James Clemons. The homestanding Jets won the game but it won’t count in the standings for either team.

The developments were the latest in how COVID-19 has impacted area football in recent weeks.

Last Thursday’s rivalry game between Huntsville and Grissom was forfeited by the Panthers after it was reported one player tested positive for the virus and others were in quarantine.

The game was originally scheduled for Sept. 2 but city school officials postponed it due to what they deemed were racially motivated social media posts between the rivals.

Last week, Bob Jones also forfeited its home game against Auburn. Hazel Green (2-4, 0-4) had an open date but placed players into quarantine and forfeited this week’s game to Muscle Shoals.

Friday, Huntsville (0-5 overall, 0-3 in Class 7A, Region 4) is scheduled to play at region rival Albertville; Grissom (3-2, 2-1) hosts Austin (4-1, 2-1) and Lee (1-4, 02 in 5A, Region 8) visits Brewer (0-6, 0-3).

Thursday, Bob Jones (2-3, 0-2 in 7A, Region 4) entertains rival Sparkman (3-2, 3-0).

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.

 

Face-Coverings Said Helping in Local Battle Against COVID-19; Number of New Cases Declines

     The numbers are in and they tell one story: face coverings are winning the battle against the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

     Since the Madison County Health Department began requiring everyone to wear face coverings in all businesses and gatherings in groups, the number of positive test results for the virus has gone down after the county experienced a surge.

     Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health issued the mandate July 7 on behalf of the county. About two weeks later, the number of positive test results began to drop.

     “Since July 22, every day the number of new cases has declined,’’ Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said during Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Right before that, we were announcing 175 new cases per day. (Wednesday) the announcement is 56.’’

     Madison County had a low number of positive cases compared to many others in the state until after Memorial Day. Cases began to spike and Madison County now has the highest total of positives in North Alabama.

     But, the statistics are looking more favorable.

     “Madison County has had a sustained decline in three-day, seven-day and 14-day average increase in cases,” Hudson said.

     Madison Mayor Paul Finley credits the face-covering mandate — and the willingness of residents to follow those orders.

     “People are doing what they’re being asked to do,’’ he said. “We can see in the numbers that it’s starting to make a difference.’’

     As of Wednesday, Madison County had 4,501 confirmed virus cases and 25 deaths while statewide those numbers were 81,572 and 1,489. Gov. Kay Ivey ordered mandatory face coverings statewide nine days after Madison County’s order.

     “The state and the surrounding counties, their decline has not been as dramatic,’’ Hudson said. “Why? Because they didn’t start the serious masking until about a week or so after Madison County.”

     Also Wednesday, Ivey extended the state’s “safer-at-home’’ order until Aug. 31. She also ordered mask requirements for state students and teachers in classrooms from second grade through college.

    Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County school districts will hold virtual-only classes for the first nine weeks when they resume. The Alabama High School Athletic Association announced its fall sports seasons would start on time though two south Alabama counties — Sumter and Greene — canceled athletics for the first nine weeks and one — Barbour — shelved all sports for 2020-21.

     Meanwhile, Hudson said that hospitals in the county are still feeling the results of the surge even as cases decrease. Currently, she said, there are between 120 and 130 COVID-19 inpatients in the county.

     And while recent news has been positive, officials continue to emphasize the importance of wearing coverings over the mouth and nose, social-distancing and hand-sanitizing.

     “Let’s not get complacent,’’ Finley said.

Failure Not an Option: Space & Rocket Center Launches ‘Save Space Camp’ Campaign

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Space Camp are in jeopardy of permanent closure due to devastating economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In an effort to remain open for future generations of visitors and campers, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Space Camp are launching a “Save Space Camp” campaign. The campaign is seeking donations from Space Camp alumni, residents of Alabama and fans and visitors to continue Space Camp’s mission of education and inspiration.  

In a news release, the center said it must raise a minimum of $1.5 million to keep the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum open past October and to reopen Space Camp in April 2021.

The Space & Rocket Center closed in March due to the surge in coronavirus cases in the U.S. The museum reopened in late May, but with far fewer than normal visitors.

Space Camp did not reopen until June 28, and then with only 20 percent of its usual attendance. With limited admission from international students and school groups this fall and winter, Space Camp will again close for weeklong camp programs in September. 

Facing a nearly 67 percent loss of revenue, the Rocket Center laid off one third of its full-time employees in May and was unable to employ an additional 700 part-time employees who typically work in all areas of Space Camp and the museum. The majority of the remaining full-time employees have been furloughed since April. 

At this time, local, state and federal agencies have not been able to help the Rocket Center though these difficult times.

“However, we firmly believe that failure is not an option, and we are turning to the public for support,” the center said in the news release.

As an educational facility, the center has helped launch thousands of successful careers in aerospace, engineering, science, education and other fields.

According to the most recent economic impact studies, the Space & Rocket Center generates $120 million in annual revenue for the state of Alabama and serves as a magnet for visitors to Huntsville. The Rocket Center has been the top paid tourist attraction in the state for seven straight years.