Posts

Coronavirus ‘Fatigue’, Apathy are Concern to Health Officials

As the novel coronavirus pandemic plows forward the message from health officials remains the same.
Especially since a variant of COVID-19 has come into play and has proven more contagious than its predecessor.

The message bears repeating even as the positive tests in Madison County have moved downward lately — wear facemasks, sanitize hands and surfaces and practice social distancing.

During the weekly COVID-19 press briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said he’s concerned virus fatigue will lead to apathy in practicing safety guidelines.

“It will not surprise me if we had another spike,’’ Spillers said. “I hope it doesn’t reach the degree that we saw following Thanksgiving and over the Christmas holidays. I think everybody let their guard down over Thanksgiving and it showed up in the number of hospitalizations here and nationwide.

“Hopefully, we won’t get that high again.’’

Spillers said the “trend line’’ was good regarding the amount of people testing positive for the virus locally.

And while around 200 hospital and healthcare workers are currently out in Huntsville Hospital facilities in north Alabama because of the virus — compared to a high of over 300 previously — the drop has provided some relief for hospital staff  but there’s still a strain on the workforce.

Of those 200 who are sidelined, 130 work at Huntsville’s main campus.

“It’s no time for people to quit social distancing, sanitizing and wearing masks,’’ Spillers said.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey extended the state’s safer-at-home and mask mandate until March 5.

The recent focus has been on vaccinations, but it’s going to take months to get enough of the medicine to vaccinate all citizens who want the shots.

Spillers said there have been 20,000 appointments logged though his hospital, which can administer 3,000 shots a week. He added there needs to be more vaccination sites, and supplies, to create momentum as efforts to control the virus continue.

According to published reports, people from all over the country are going to states or counties where they don’t live to gain access to the vaccine. That scenario is no different in Madison County, though Alabama has reportedly vaccinated the fewest percentage of residents than any of the 50 states.

“When we find people who have registered here that may be in one of the surrounding counties, we try to get them scheduled in the local county,’’ Spiller said. “It’s easier for them, and that distributes the load among all of our hospitals.

“We can vaccinate about 3,000 people a week right now in Madison County. That’s all the vaccine we’re getting. We’re vaccinating. We’re not holding back any vaccine when we get it. As soon as we can get people scheduled and get them in, we can continue to increase the number of vaccines as we get more.’’

As of Jan. 19, there were 186 COVID-19 patients in Madison County with 47 in ICU and 35 on ventilators.

“We still have a lot of sick patients,’’ Spillers said.

Statistics released Jan. 21 by the Alabama Department of Public health showed 432,536 positive cases and 6,379 deaths statewide. Those numbers in Madison County were 27,627 and 201.

 

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.”

 

Governor Announces ‘Revive Plus’ $200M Small Business Grant Program

The state has launched Revive Plus, a $200 million grant program to support small businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations in Alabama that have been impacted by COVID-19, Gov. Kay Ivey announced.

Revive Plus is the second wave of funding for these organizations with 50 or fewer employees and will award grants of up to $20,000 for expenses they have incurred due to operational interruptions caused by the pandemic and related business closures.

“As the state has rolled out over $1 billion of the CARES Act monies to the individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19, it became evident the group most overwhelmingly hurt during the pandemic were the small ‘mom and pop’ shops,” Ivey said. “A second round of assistance through Revive Plus will ensure that the small business owners who have borne the brunt of the downed economy can be made as whole as possible.

“As we head into the holiday season, my hope is that this will be welcome news for our businesses and help ease their burdens from what has been a very hard year.”

Entities may receive up to $20,000 to reimburse qualifying expenses if they have not received federal assistance for the corresponding item they are claiming with the state of Alabama.

The Revive Plus grant is in addition to any state of Alabama Coronavirus Relief Fund grant previously received, including the Revive Alabama Small Business, Non-Profit, Faith-Based, and Health Care Provider grants. There is no set cap on the number of entities that may be awarded a Revive Plus Grant.

Information and applications are available at the Coronavirus Relief Fund website – https://crf.alabama.gov/. The application period is noon Nov. 23 through noon Dec. 4. Grants will be awarded to qualifying applicants on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds are exhausted.

“The Revive Plus program is much needed in our small business economy,” Senate General Fund Chairman Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) said. “I commend Governor Ivey for taking this action, recapturing unspent dollars and using a proven program to bring economic relief to our small business owners.”

Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 initially designated up to $300 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for individuals, businesses, non-profit and faith-based organizations directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. After the initial $100 million for small business that was reimbursed starting in July 2020, legislative leadership approved a second round of $200 million from allocations made to reimburse state government and from other grant programs that have ended with the full allocation unspent.

Dr. Birx Urges State to Extend Mask Mandate

The statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Kay Ivey is set to expire Friday.

Not so fast, if White House advisor Dr. Deborah Birx’s comments in Auburn this past week reached Montgomery.

During a Thursday visit to Auburn University, the doctor said Ivey’s mandate should be extended. 

“If you look at what happened within two weeks of the mask mandate,’’ Birx said, “you can see the dramatic decline in cases here in Alabama. We talked about the importance of keeping those mitigations strong through the fall to get through this fall together, to ensure that people are immunized for flu to really protect one another, keep the rates down, get the rates down even further.

“Alabama’s test positivity is really dropping, really improving, but we’ve got to do even more.’’

On her visit, Birx also denied television reports that she was “distressed’’ the direction the nation’s coronavirus task force was taking while she participated at an Auburn University roundtable.

A day earlier, local officials addressed the current state of the coronavirus at the week COVID-19 press briefing.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said Madison County’s move from a high to moderate risk of spreading the virus was because of increased testing, principally at schools and nursing homes.

Hudson said when positive tests are found the patients are mostly asymptomatic and that hospitalizations are declining. Local officials feared a spike in cases following the Labor Day weekend and students returning to classrooms but it hasn’t happened.

“The public health measures are working,” she said. “There is no other valid reason for these stable numbers.”

Hudson also urged citizens to get a flu shot.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley encouraged people to support local restaurants Tuesday in lieu of the annual Taste of Huntsville, which has been cancelled.

The Huntsville-Madison County Hospitality Association is calling for an all-day “Dine on 9/29” celebration this year. “Dine on 9/29” calls on residents to enjoy socially distanced indoor dining, patio dining, take out, or delivery from restaurants.

He said anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable dining in should take advantage of curbside service.

“We all want (the restaurants) there when we come out of this,” Finley said.

Madison County EMA Director Jeff Birdwell said the Alabama Department of Public Health is working on a plan to distribute a vaccine once one is ready. At that time, he added, local officials would meet for a second time to discuss the issue.

 

In Historic Move, Drake State President Named to State Port Authority Board

MONTGOMERY – Dr. Patricia Sims, president of Drake State Community & Technical College, has been appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Alabama State Port Authority Board of Directors.

Drake State President Dr. Patricia Sims (Drake State Photo)

She is the first African-American woman to be appointed to the Port Authority Board. Sims will represent the Northern District, succeeding Al Stanley, whose term expired July 31.

“… It’s an honor to have received this appointment and I intend to execute my role with commitment and integrity,” said Sims. “The Port Authority is an anchor to Alabama’s economy and I look forward to being able to contribute to its continued success.”

Established by the Legislature in 2000, the nine-member Port Authority board holds fiscal and policy oversight for the public seaport. The Port Authority owns and operates Alabama’s deep-water port facilities at the Port of Mobile, one of the nation’s largest seaports.

“I’ve appointed individuals that have consistently demonstrated the necessary knowledge and leadership skills critical to economic expansion in Alabama,” said Ivey. “The success of our port is fundamental to Alabama businesses and jobs …”

The authority’s container, general cargo and bulk facilities handle more than 26 million tons of cargo annual and have immediate access to two interstate systems, five Class 1 railroads, and nearly 15,000 miles of inland waterways.

The cargo and vessel activity associated with the Port Authority employs more than 150,400 Alabamians and generates some $25.4 billion in economic value for the state.

Talk of Reopening Local Businesses Gains Steam

With the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Madison County flattening the curve, talk of reopening business is growing steam.

The number of positive tests for COVID-19 was the same Saturday — 205 — as it was Thursday. That figure was 198 to start the week. The number of deaths in the county related to the virus — four — also held steady.

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong said preparations are being made to reopen whenever Gov. Kay Ivey lifts the stay-at-home order but said it would be a gradual process. The order expires Thursday.

“When it is lifted, this is not the green flag at the Talladega 500 where everyone comes out with the gas pedal mashed to the floor, trying to recoup,” Strong said during the most recent virus briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

Strong said when county offices opened safety procedures — using hand sanitizers, wearing gloves and face masks and practicing social distancing — will still be stressed. County employees will be required to work six feet apart.

“This is not a switch we’re going to flip an everything suddenly returns to normal,” Strong said. “Everything we’re doing now, from social distancing, wearing a face covering and not gathering in large groups, is our new normal.”

Earlier in the week, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said whenever the reopening occurs it will happen gradually for businesses such as restaurants.

“At this time right now we’re looking at a possible phased reopening,’’ Battle said. “Maybe 25 percent capacity, then 50 percent capacity, then 100 percent capacity. We don’t know exactly what the governor’s orders are going to have in it. We expect the governor’s orders within the week.

“We’re going to be walking a very fine line. The fine line is how we reopen our economy and re-open our businesses, and how we keep our public safe. That’s a very fine line to walk. We know we’ll have some additional cases.’’

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said an increase in positive tests will be unavoidable.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about when we start to open up again and what happens when we see a spike in cases, which we will. What we’re trying to avoid is an uncontrollable spike in cases.’’

For now, she said, she believes the county is “already in the containment phase. There’s no particular line of demarcation but with the continued downward trend in hospitalizations.’’

Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health said they were investigating each case of COVID-19 and are doing contact tracing, a method of identifying people the person with the virus has been in contact with by using all ADHP employees with experience with tracing.

“We are working on expanding the contact investing pool by using pre-med medical students,’’ she said.

As of Saturday, the ADPH listed 6,137 confirmed cases and 212 deaths from the virus.

Stay at Home Order Issued for State

The Alabama Department of Public Health has enacted a Stay at Home Order for the state of Alabama, effective April 4 at 5 p.m. to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Grocery stores and other essential businesses will remain open. Huntsville residents should stay at home, only leaving for essential needs and services, until the order is lifted.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle issued the following statement in response to the Stay at Home order:

“The City of Huntsville fully supports the Alabama Department of Health’s (ADPH) Stay at Home Order announced today by Governor (Kay) Ivey,” said MayorBattle. “This is a deliberate and measured response to the COVID-19 threat that faces our state and our community. The coming four weeks will be significant as the epicenter of this virus hits Alabama. Since the first confirmed case of the virus entered Madison County on March 17, Huntsville and our COVID-19 team partners – EMA, ADPH, medical community, hospitals, HEMSI, local governments, Redstone Arsenal, and the Chamber — have been working to apply the necessary controls and measures to stop the spread of this virus. The Stay at Home Order will further help us flatten the curve and save lives.

“None of this works without the support of our community. We must continue to take the virus seriously, to remain at home unless absolutely necessary, to protect the lives of those we love and that of our healthcare workers and those on the front lines.

“We will get through this together – six feet apart.”

Officials Stress ‘One Person, One Cart’ While Shopping; Curfew Discussed

Local elected officials leaders took a ride around Madison County over the weekend to monitor how residents and businesses were handling the latest move to help stem the coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Kay Ivey released a list of non-essential businesses that were shut down Saturday. It was called the state’s most aggressive action to date to try to curb the spread, but falls short of a “stay at home” directive that some states have ordered.

After the tour Saturday, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, and Madison Mayor Paul Finley discussed what would be their next steps.

“We have a strategy plan in place that works if everybody follows the plan, so we’re going to be very serious about this over the next 10 days to two weeks,” Battle said in a Huntsville-Madison County Chamber teleconference Monday. “Right now, we are still in the upslope of the curve, not at the top of the curve, so we have not seen the peak of confirmed cases yet, but if we can get through this first surge, we won’t be at the end, but we will be in better shape than we would otherwise.”

Battle said, overall, they found almost everybody doing what they were supposed to do.

“People stayed home, kept separated when they were out, and there was not much traffic in downtown Huntsville. Bridge Street and Research Park all the way across the board, everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

He said officials are aware of some “hot spots” across the county. Big box stores are open and inherently busy with people.

“Don’t take the whole family to these stores,” said Battle. “We call it ‘One Person, One Cart.’ Go through, get what you need, and get out.”

The Saturday posse also had to “tighten the reins” on some parks after seeing young people in groups of over 10 playing there.

“There is not to be any team sports occurring in the parks,” said Battle. “A lot of it is the younger generations … (they) enjoy group gatherings, but if one of them has the virus, then they give it to five other people in the group who take it home to their family, putting them all at risk. That’s just simply the way it is.

“And you know the one big thing we do not want to do, is have a curfew.”

Battle said he and Finley have discussed it with Strong, Huntsville Hospital Health System CEO David Spillers and Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson.

They also discussed it with the Alabama Department of Public Health on their daily call. The ADPH keeps them updated on where they are with the virus, and what they are seeing throughout the state.

“We don’t want to institute a curfew at this time,” Battle said. “We don’t think it makes sense … but it’s still a tool in our tool chest in case we need it to enforce good public health.”

And Battle saluted the area’s health-care workers.

“They have done a wonderful job over the last several weeks,” he said. “Our hearts go out to those out there who are on the very tip of the spear, the ones who are there working on a day-to-day basis.”

Huntsville’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed March 18. There have now been 70 confirmed cases throughout the community, and Battle said there are probably quite a few more.

“If we all follow the plan, we will get through this,” he said. “If we do the right things, we come through this okay and we succeed.

“If we fail, it will cost people their lives.”

 

DaikyoNishikawa US Breaks Ground on $110M Plant to Supply Mazda Toyota Factory

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood that is Mazda Toyota Manufacturing US.

On Thursday, executives of DaikyoNishikawa US joined state and local leaders at a groundbreaking event on the MTMUS campus in Limestone County to launch construction on its $110 million manufacturing plant. It will be DNUS’s first U.S. manufacturing plant.

The DNUS facility, which will produce plastic automotive parts for the MTMUS assembly plant, will employ approximately 380 people at full production.

In May, DNUS became the first supplier to announce plans to locate on the site of the Mazda Toyota joint venture assembly plant, which will have the capacity to produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually.

“As our first manufacturing facility in North America, DNUS is proud to serve Mazda Toyota and call Huntsville our new home,” said Nariaki Uchida, president of DaikyoNishikawa Corp. “Together with our business and community partners, our aim is to be a good corporate neighbor and a premiere Tier I automotive supplier.”

By establishing the Huntsville operations, DNC aims to further strengthen relationships with major customers.

The DNUS project represents one of the latest in a string of supplier announcements tied to the MTMUS assembly plant in 2019. So far, a total of five MTMUS suppliers have pinpointed sites in North Alabama for production locations that will create almost 1,700 new auto-sector jobs, most of them in Huntsville.

The DNUS plant will supply resin auto parts, such as bumpers and instrument panels, to Mazda Toyota.

“DaikyoNishikawa is a key manufacturer in the growing cluster of Tier 1 automotive suppliers for MTMUS, and we’re excited to provide the skilled workers for this high-performing auto industry leader,” ​Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

“I’m proud to welcome another great Japanese company, DaikyoNishikawa … and I know that together we will build a lasting partnership,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Today marks another pivotal moment for Huntsville as it becomes the next vital production hub for the global auto industry.”

Construction on the 3.1 million-square-foot MTMUS facility is well under way, with as many as 2,500 construction workers expected on the site this summer. The Mazda-Toyota partnership is investing $1.6 billion to open the Huntsville assembly plant, which will employ up to 4,000 people.

Once the DNUS facility begins operations to coincide with the start of MTMUS vehicle production in 2021, DNUS will manufacture large resin parts such as bumpers and instrument panels for the automakers.

“By selecting Alabama as the site for its first U.S. manufacturing facility, DaikyoNishikawa joins a long list of world-class Japanese companies with growing operations in the state,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “We look forward to working with this high-caliber company to assemble a workforce in Huntsville that can fuel its growth plans.”

Auto Supplier Vuteq to Join Mazda Toyota Campus; Creating 200 Jobs

Another supplier will soon be breaking ground at the massive Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant campus in Huntsville.

Japan-based Vuteq, which has operated in North America for more than three decades, will hire approximately 200 workers for its first production location in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday.

Vuteq USA plans to invest more than $60 million to open a manufacturing facility to serve the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A.  auto assembly plant in Huntsville. The company joins a growing list of Tier 1 suppliers that have announced plans to set up operations in the region.

“The automotive cluster growing around Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A. is gaining another significant addition with Vuteq’s decision to open a manufacturing facility in Huntsville,” Ivey said. “Vuteq has established a large industrial footprint in the United States, and it’s great to see the company expand that presence to our state. We look forward to working with Vuteq …”

Vuteq USA will produce interior and exterior plastic-injected parts and various sub-assemblies for Mazda and Toyota at their shared assembly plant, now under construction on a 2,500-acre tract in the Limestone County portion of Huntsville.

“Vuteq USA Inc. is very pleased and excited to be opening our next plant in Alabama,” Kazumasa Watanabe, president of Vuteq USA, said in the governor’s press release. “Our company is thankful for the support provided by the city of Huntsville and state of Alabama as we begin a new chapter.”

Construction work at Vuteq’s site at 7306 Greenbriar Parkway, just outside the MTMUS campus, is scheduled to begin in October and completed in September 2020. A production launch is targeted for 2021.

“We’re pleased that Huntsville will be home to Vuteq’s first venture in Alabama and we welcome them to our growing network of automotive suppliers,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

Vuteq USA has begun hiring the first of its Alabama workforce, with full employment at the Huntsville facility projected to be reached in 2021.

Interested applicants can email the company at VuteqAlabamaJobs@vuteqky.com. The company is also working with AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, for hiring and training support.

Within its Huntsville facility, Vuteq USA will host several other manufacturing companies, one of which will be Diversity Vuteq LLC, a minority joint venture, and others yet to be named.

The Mazda-Toyota partnership is investing $1.6 billion to build and equip its Huntsville assembly plant, which will have up to 4,000 workers producing up to 300,000 vehicles annually. Construction on the facility began this year.

MTMUS is expected to begin vehicle production in 2021.

By that time, a network of parts suppliers will be in place in North Alabama to support the Huntsville assembly operation. Counting Vuteq, five suppliers have already announced plans for facilities that will create nearly 1,700 jobs. Their combined investment in Alabama totals $440 million.

“Vuteq is a superb addition to Alabama’s rapidly growing network of high-caliber international auto suppliers,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “I’m confident that Vuteq will benefit from the capabilities of Alabama’s skilled workforce and the state’s business-friendly environment. I know we can build a solid future together.”

Vuteq, which has more than 13,000 employees, has a long-established relationship with Toyota and plans to build a strong partnership with Mazda.

Since 1965, Vuteq has supplied Toyota with various services including logistics and parts such as interior trim, door trim and cockpit assemblies, among other things.

Vuteq launched North American operations in 1987 at Georgetown, Ky., where Toyota operates an assembly plant. Vuteq has U.S. plants in Indiana, Texas and Mississippi and a facility in Ontario.