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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. 

 

Force Majeure: An Unexpected Legal Side Effect of Coronavirus

If you are a person who never reads the fine print of a contract, you have probably never heard of a force majeure clause.

However, that clause in every commercial contract for the past century may be worth reading for those suffering the economic hardships caused by coronavirus and the economic shutdown.

That relatively short paragraph in a commercial lease offers a glimpse into why all that fine print is important, and many business owners are discovering they can take shelter in its words.

Broadly written and mostly ignored until now, force majeure essentially says the contract you are signing is not enforceable in the event of a declaration of war or an act of nature.

In the past, what exactly constitutes an act of nature has been a bit unclear and some businesses are vowing to fight it in the courts, while many businessowners are justly using the force majeure to say, “Wait a minute. We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and I am being forced to close my business due to circumstances outside my control. I am activating my force majeure clause in response to my inability to pay the rent.”

As a result, commercial developers, property managers, and businesses who lease space to another business are getting their first look at post-coronavirus lease contracts.

What used to be a short, single paragraph is coming back a page or more in length, clarifying in detail, what exactly constitutes an act of nature. In addition to global pandemic, which is meticulously explained, these contracts are also allowing for events of civil unrest and riots.

As one landlord put it, the force majeure is now a lot more iron clad and landlords are going to have to go along with it.

While most businesses are willing to work with tenants on situations where they cannot pay the rent, and essentially defer the collection process until solutions can be found, it is now more than ever a choice about what the two parties will and won’t negotiate to reach a solution.

The force majeure is being expanded to try and clarify all circumstances that uphold that argument.

One example is that of a knee surgeon who isn’t allowed to perform knee surgeries because they are shut down for six weeks. Clearly there is no money coming in to pay the rent.

Some of these longer force majeures are written to say, if you close the hospital to elective surgeries, I will need to forego payments for six months or until the hospital reopens and I am able to offer services.

Force majeure is just one of the unexpected consequences of the coronavirus that will be with us for a long time.

Officials Stress Masks, Social Distancing, Sanitizing as COVID-19 Numbers Rise

The message might resemble a broken record, but it will continue to be repeated until the rise of novel coronavirus cases in Madison County is itself broken.

While confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in the county as well statewide health officials continue to stress the importance of following safety guidelines.

The oft-repeated message is simple: wear face coverings, practice social distancing and sanitize hands.

“If 80 percent of our community would mask, cover their faces, then we would reduce transmission by 90 percent,” Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said Wednesday at the first COVID-19 briefing in a week.

If more people within the community don’t start or continue to follow precautions, she said, “we’re going to continue to see more of this.’’

This is a surge that has alarmed local officials enough that a county-wide health order was issued this week that face coverings were mandatory in public businesses and gatherings. Local hospitals are nearing capacity on beds available, and further surges could place a burden on the healthcare system.

Last week, the state health department was monitoring roughly 500 COVID-19 cases in the county. This week, that number is up to 847. Through Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Health reported 46,424 confirmed cases among 467,754 tested and 1,032 deaths. In Madison County, there have been 1,620 confirmed cases and eight deaths.

Hudson said the reason is likely due to the lack of following precautionary steps. Masking and distancing, she said, can help reduce the speak and lessen the burden on hospital staff and resources.

“I’d like to suggest we think about this masking and distancing as a temporary vaccination,’’ she said. “We are waiting for the scientists and the pharmaceutical companies to come up with a vaccine that works. It’s months away.

“Meanwhile, we have to save ourselves for the day that we will have access to the vaccine.”

Madison Mayor Paul Finley assured residents police would not be looking to flag people for not wearing masks in public but instead will have masks for anyone who asks them for one. He said people need to make the wise choice even if they don’t agree with it.

“We have a choice with our attitude,” Finley said. “Not everybody is going to agree with everything that’s done, I think everybody can agree our goal is to get through this as quickly as we possibly can and get back to a normal life that allows us to focus on the things that make us happy.”

According to Hudson, health officials’ biggest concern right now is not space of supplies at the hospitals but the stress being placed on frontline caregivers.

“Our ambulances had the greatest number (Tuesday) of runs since this started,’’ she said. “They are finding that, what was quoted to us today, in about 20 percent of the runs they make they’re having to do the full PPE, which is an increase as well.” 

County Commission Chairman: ‘We Don’t Have This Pandemic Under Control’

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong sounded a resounding alarm during Monday’s COVID-19 press briefing.

“We don’t have this pandemic under control, Strong said. “Not in Madison County, not throughout the state of Alabama and not in the United States.”

The comments came on the same day that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, was quoted at a press briefing in Geneva saying the pandemic is speeding up globally and the “worst is yet to come.’’

“We all want this to be over,’’ he said. “We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is that it’s not even close to being over.’’

Also Monday, Arizona joined Texas and Florida whose governors closed down such gathering spots as bars, gyms, and beaches to combat spikes of the novel coronavirus in those states.

Meanwhile, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers reported a spike in Madison County and the region.

“As of (Monday), we have 115 COVID positive inpatients in our system,” Spillers said. “When I reported on June 1, we had 28. So that’s a substantial increase in the month of June.”

Spillers said local and area hospitals have enough beds to deal with virus surges that require hospitalization. What he fears right now is the exposure of health care workers.

Strong noted that 14 HEMSI workers were out Monday because they’ve been exposed to a COVID-19 patient or a family member has tested positive.

Spillers and Strong both continued to stress wearing face coverings as a way to combat the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know when wearing face coverings became a political statement, and I’m sorry that it has,” Spillers said. “It hasn’t got anything to do with that. It’s just an effective way to keep people from transmitting the disease.’’

Strong said he’s heard from people who don’t want to wear a mask.

“There are people that believe they want to preserve their freedoms,’’ Strong said. “If they don’t want to wear one, they don’t believe they should be made to wear one. There are different dynamics today than we had a week ago, nevertheless 14 weeks ago.’’

The rising positive cases of COVID-19 locally and statewide, Strong said, should sway doubters into wearing face coverings. Face coverings are required within county offices.

“You look at the mistakes of other states, we don’t want to make the same mistakes they’ve made,’’ he said. “The mask has proven to be beneficial to the people of Madison County.

“In the study, or what we’ve done at the Madison County Commission for about four or five days, people didn’t like it, but then you look back several weeks later and we’ve had no cases that we’ve tied to the Madison County Courthouse.’’

The 115 inpatients Spillers alluded to include a 16-year old who is one of 11 coronavirus positive patients on a ventilator and among 16 total in ICUs. There are 44 inpatients in Madison County, including 38 at Huntsville main, six in Madison, and two in Crestwood Medical Center.

Other coronavirus numbers:

  • Decatur Morgan Hospital has 20 inpatients with coronavirus and Marshall County has 30.
  • There are 12 inpatients with coronavirus at Helen Keller Hospital and Athens Limestone Hospital has nine.
  • The average age of hospitalization for the coronavirus is the mid-50s with the majority of those having pre-existing conditions.
  • There are nearly 37,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 900 deaths statewide, while in Madison County the numbers are 996 and six.

Huntsville Hospital has the highest number of cases since its first positive patient was admitted. As businesses re-open and sports are coming back to life, Spillers cautioned that not going backward like Arizona, Texas and Florida is to practice safeguards.

“We can’t go back to normal without some protections in place,” he said. “That’s not going to work.”

 

Health, Civic Officials Plea: Wear Face Coverings, Use Hand Sanitizers, Practice Social Distancing.

Wear face coverings, use hand sanitizers and practice social distancing.

It’s neither a broken record nor a cliche, just the repeated pleas from health and civic officials urging Madison County residents to practice these safety measures to battle the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

That checklist continues to be the theme at the bi-weekly pandemic press conference at the Huntsville City Council chambers. Especially in light of the number of positive cases in the county spiking the last two weeks in the wake of protests and as restaurants, bars and businesses re-open.

And even for those who refuse to wear a mask, following those guidelines might keep at bay an ordinance to require them to wear masks at all public places.

“The last time I reported in our system hospitals across Alabama, we had about 30 inpatients; today we’ve got 70 inpatients in our hospitals across North Alabama,” Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said. “So we’ve seen a fairly substantial increase in the number of people who have COVID, who need hospital care.”

The number of local and area residents needing inpatient and ventilator care has also increased. Of the 70 patients in Huntsville Hospital facilities, there are 23 in Madison County with 16 in Huntsville and seven in Madison. Of the 23, seven are in intensive care and six are on ventilators.

Statewide, 348,687 people have been tested for the virus. Confirmed positives are at 30,031 and 831 deaths because of the coronavirus have been reported. In the county, there have been 23,865 tests with 711 confirmed cases and six deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The state has a population of nearly 5 million and Madison County has a population nearing 400,000. Less than 20 percent in both instances of the population have been tested.

“For the longest time, I presented to this group that about three percent of all of our tests were running positive,” Spillers said. “That’s now up to around six to eight percent of the tests we run are coming back positive.”

Spillers warned that younger people feeling immune to the deadly aspect of the disease should take caution while the average age of a COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital is 54.6.

“People tend to think this is much more skewed toward the elderly and, if you look at mortality, it is much more skewed toward the elderly. For me, 54 is not old at all.”

Meanwhile, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said he’s heard from both sides of the mask-wearing debate. He doesn’t see a clear path to making it work but acknowledged a city-wide requirement is not off the table.

“It’s a fine line to walk,’’ he said. “We want to make sure that we have public health, and we want people to do that, the question is, ‘If you did have a mask ordinance, how would you enforce it?’

“If we see numbers start to spike up, then we’re going to consider it much more than we have in the past.”

Battle said that if around 700 new cases develop, a mark ordinance would be given more “consideration.’’

Spillers fully supports wearing masks.

“In areas where you can stay separated, you may not need to wear a mask,” he said. “But in those areas where you come close to people, you’ve got to wear a mask.

“I think that that’s the single most important thing we could do to try to minimize the spread of coronavirus.”

 

Local COVID-19 Cases Increase; City, County on ‘Watch List’

Huntsville and Madison County enjoyed weeks as the poster child in the state for how to battle the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

While other counties seemed to struggle in dealing with the virus, Madison County maintained low numbers of confirmed cases.

That’s no longer true.

At Friday’s COVID-19 press briefing in the Huntsville City Council chambers, state and local officials produced ominous numbers as well as comments.

“One thing that stands out, as of last Friday (June 12), we had 85 quarantined cases in Madison County,’’ said county Emergency Management Director Jeff Birdwell. “(June 19), we have 243.

“Also a word of warning: We have received word that the city of Huntsville and Madison County is actually on the government’s COVID-19 watch list, which represents any organizations or governments that have more than a 200 percent increase in confirmed cases.

“I think it’s important that the community know that.”

Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) said the trend not only in Madison County but statewide is “disturbing.’’

The numbers on ADHP’s dashboard revealed these numbers Sunday: 29,538 confirmed cases statewide with 829 deaths, and 701 confirmed cases and six deaths in Madison County.

“Our numbers statewide have continued to climb,’’ Landers said. “This is an extremely disturbing trend to the Alabama Department of Public Health and to me personally as a health official.’’

About half of the cases in Madison County have been confirmed in the last month.

“With these rising numbers,’’ Landers said, “if we don’t get this under control, it is going to overwhelm our health care system, which has been the worry we have had the whole time.”

Hospitalizations have also risen because of the virus across the state, particularly in the 24-49 age group.

“Early on, this community took a very strong stance providing a lot of messaging and a lot of information, and our numbers were low in this county compared to other parts of the state,” Landers said. “But our numbers in this county have started to climb.

“We know that without any level of social distancing or without any level of personal protective measures that a person with COVID-19 under the most optimal conditions will transmit COVID-19 to 2 1/2 people. But it can actually be higher than that.”

While health officials and local authorities continue to stress safeguards against the virus — wearing face coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing — a trip to any reopened store reveals not everyone is taking any precautions.

“The hardest thing is enforcement,” Madison Mayor Paul Finley said. “How do you do that?”

Finley, Landers, and others at the bi-weekly COVID-19 briefings continue to persuade residents to take the virus seriously.

“We really have limited options in terms of prevention, and we really have limited options in terms of treatment,’’ Landers said. “However, the options we have in terms of prevention are actually not extremely noxious, if you will, and they’re not extremely difficult to carry out.’’

 

Crestwood CEO: Masks Help Protect Wearer Against COVID-19; ‘The Life You Save May be Your Own’

Cloth face masks, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to contain the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, are now considered to be protection for the wearer against contracting the disease.

According to Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson, cloth masks are proving to act as a barrier to the virus. It was previously thought only specialized masks such as N95 would protect the wearer.

“Evidence now is even the cloth masks can protect the wearer from 80 percent of the (airborne) particles,’’ she said during Monday’s COVID-19 update at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Masks reduce the number of particles that get past that barrier and that means 80 percent can’t reach the nose and mouth, which is the way we catch this.

“Having a smaller viral attack rate means your body has a better chance of winning the battle and having a less severe illness. So wear your mask. The life you save may be your own.’’

Hudson’s comments come on the heels of an increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Madison County and statewide. There have been 22 states that have seen daily increases in cases in the past two weeks as the country reopens its economy. At least 12 of those states have reached their highest number of cases since the pandemic started.

As of Monday night, there were 25,892 reported confirmed virus cases with 769 deaths. Madison County has 566 confirmed cases with five deaths. The county has had an increase of 222 positive cases in the past 14 days with a majority in the 24-49 age group. Also, around 50 percent of the cases being confirmed are among blacks.

“Blacks are over-represented in testing positive,’’ Hudson said.

According to WHNT-TV, three Albertville High School football players have tested positive for the virus since students returned for voluntary workouts.

“We’ve had the largest three-day increase since the first case was announced,’’ Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said Monday. “It’s vital to remain mindful of the need to take personal responsibility for your safety as well as those around us.’’

While Hudson and Strong both stressed the tenants of fighting the virus – wearing masks, hand sanitizing and social distancing – Hudson condemned a recent fad: COVID parties. The theory behind these gatherings is to “get it over with’’ and to develop a herd immunity.

This, she said, was popular in the 1950-60s era when parents exposed their children to chicken pox. COVID-19 is not chicken pox, she warned.

“Very few children had serious effects from chicken pox,’’ she said. “COVID is not chickenpox. COVID is a serious illness.’’

Hudson said one of 10 people affected with COVID-19 require hospitalization, 20 percent of those end up on a ventilator and the mortality rate is 30 percent.

“Get it over with is not a good idea,’’ she said.