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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.’’

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.

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.

 

New Huntsville Hospital Pedestrian Bridge in Place over Gallatin Street

The city’s largest medical construction project in 40 years has achieved a major milestone.

The new Orthopedic & Spine Tower is now connected to Huntsville Hospital thanks to a 50-ton pedestrian bridge over Gallatin Street. Aided by two large cranes, crews from Robins & Morton safely and delicately guided the bridge’s 80-foot-long steel frame into place last Saturday.

The climate-controlled walkway will allow Huntsville Hospital
staff, patients and visitors to move easily between the hospital and Orthopedic & Spine Tower.

Once construction is finished, the climate-controlled walkway will allow Huntsville Hospital staff, patients and visitors to move easily between the hospital and Orthopedic & Spine Tower.

The seven-story tower will include:

  • 24 state-of-the-art operating rooms
  • 72 spacious patient rooms\
  • Large pre-surgical prep and post-op recovery areas
  • A new home for the popular Joint Camp group physical therapy program
  • Covered parking for patients, visitors and physicians
  • More than 5,000 square feet of street-level restaurant and retail space

The tower at the northwest corner of Gallatin Street and Sivley Road – across from the hospital’s main entrance – is on track to open next summer.

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.”

 

Rime of COVID-19: Virus Hanging Like an Albatross Around Our Necks

While protests worldwide have taken over the headlines, there remains one albatross around America’s and the world’s collective necks.

The COVID-19 pandemic.

And as unrest surrounding many of the protests, including in Huntsville, against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer this country is facing another big question.

Will the hundreds and even thousands of people in close-in crowds hasten what is feared to be a second round of the virus?

“There’s more opportunity for people to get sick, there’s no doubt about it,’’ Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said. “Whether or not that creates the spike we’re all looking for I don’t know. I don’t think we know enough about this virus to know if it’s contagious in the middle of the summer when it’s 90 degrees as it is or when it’s 35 degrees and we’re all together.

“I think any social event is an opportunity for people to get sick if somebody in that group is sick if they don’t practice distancing. And I know it’s probably hard to do when you’re in a crowd like that.’’

Spillers predicted there will likely be a spike in two weeks when any protestors contract the virus. He also local hospitals “have a plan if there is a spike.’’

The Alabama Department of Public Health’s website joined many throughout the nation in experiencing trouble updating its statistics last week when a backlog of lab results overwhelmed systems.

But during Friday’s pandemic briefing it was announced the figures posted at the ADPH site were back in order. Those results as of Saturday night showed there have been 359 confirmed cases of the virus with four deaths in Madison County.

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong reported that Huntsville Hospital has seven in-patients and Madison Hospital has two with none of those on ventilators.

Earlier, Spillers said, “I look at the numbers and while I’m not unhappy about it, I’d like the numbers to be less. But I’m an optimist and we’re holding our own and I think we’ll be OK.

“But all that could change quickly if we’re not very careful.’’

Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield recommended that anyone who has attended a protest gets tested. But, Spillers said not many asymptomatic people Huntsville has tested have proved to be positive and that no system has “an unlimited supply.’’

Dr. Karen Landers of the ADPH said while anyone experiencing symptoms shouldn’t hesitate to seek testing, prudence should be in order.

“I get asked a lot of times about a large entity where perhaps a person has had a case,’’ she said. “We have to remember not everyone is not going to develop Covid-19 and not everyone has the same level of exposure.

“We’re really talking about people that are either household, intimate partner, or close contacts where there are less than six feet of space for greater than 15 minutes. It’s really all about the time and the exposure to the person.”

 

Madison Mayor Finley: Events to Fill Baseball Void at Toyota Field – When Allowed

It might not be Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball, but Toyota Field might soon be hosting events.

That’s according to Madison Mayor Paul Finley, who at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing said, as soon as it’s allowed, plans are to open the new stadium to an array of events.

The Trash Pandas were scheduled to open their first season in Double-A on April 15 before the novel coronavirus intervened. There has been no decision regarding the start or cancelation of the Minor or Major League Baseball seasons.

“Regardless of whether baseball happens, or doesn’t happen, we’re getting ready to start doing a lot of really positive things,’’ Finley said. “A lot of people will be able to come to that venue and use it whether its camps for kids for baseball, whether it’s a wine and cheese festival, whether it’s movies in the park — we’re going to start having events there and doing it in a way that makes good sense when it comes to distancing and sanitation and so forth.’’

Finley also pointed out this is National EMS Week and said for those on the frontlines “we’re very appreciative of what they do.’’

On another note, he said masks would be available for anyone without one who attends graduation ceremonies for James Clemens and Bob Jones at Madison City Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Huntsville plans to hold graduations June 25-26 at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena. Madison County schools have set graduations for July 15-16.

Masks will be required at all ceremonies and distancing will be in practice.

As of late Wednesday, there were 13,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 285 in Madison County. There were 522 deaths in Alabama related to the disease and four in the county.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said there were less than 10 patients in local hospitals being treated for the virus.

“We are remaining vigilant,’’ she said. “We’re watching the numbers as the community reopens.’’

Hudson continued to stress social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning heavily used surfaces.

She also said that while stay-at-home orders were in place most people were around 1 to 5 people in a household. Now that people are returning to work, that core group is more like 20 people. That 20, she pointed out, would average around three people in the household so now each worker is exposed to a possible 60 contacts.

“The more we open it the more germs can come our way,’’ she said, “which is why we focus on six feet apart.’’

Hudson also emphasized that all health care facilities are open and urged anyone who is not well to visit the emergency room.

“Don’t stay home if you’re sick,’’ she said. “Don’t delay essential care.’’

 

Medical Officials Concerned About Disease Affecting Children

An alert has been issued about a rare inflammatory disease that could possibly be related to COVID-19.

The condition — Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome — so far has only been diagnosed in children. No cases have been found within the state, but Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health said her department is monitoring the situation, and alerts have been sent to doctors statewide.

Symptoms of the syndrome include fever and rash. It’s being referred to as a Kawasaki-like disease.

“(Kawasaki) is a disease that is still not well understood in the pediatric medical community, but I saw it early in my career so Kawasaki disease has been around for a long time,’’ Landers said during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers. “Whether or not it is related to COVID-19 is still to be determined.’’

Kawasaki causes fever, followed by inflammation in blood vessels throughout the body. The condition most often affects kids younger than 5 years old.

“I might just remind parents, and as a pediatrician myself, that in this time we’re focusing on COVID, we do not need to forget routine preventative care is very important,’’ Landers said.

As of Saturday morning, the ADPH website listed 11,389 confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide and 274 in Madison County. There were 23 deaths overnight Friday to bring the total to 485, while the death toll in the county remained at four.

Last week, Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said six coronavirus cases were confirmed at the Fever and Flu Clinic but said he didn’t know if all were county residents. Spillers said it was the highest number of positive results in “about 30 days.’’

“We’re not panicking over that,’’ he said. “We all knew when we opened up the economy we would see more positive cases. I think that’s inevitable.’’

In the first week after Gov. Kay Ivey gave the green light to re-open the economy, Spillers said Huntsville Hospital did 1,500 elective surgeries and expected the same amount next week.

He also said Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center would maintain restrictions on the number of visitors for each patient and everyone would be required to wear a mask.

He also had words of caution as people try to find some normalcy.

“We need to be careful,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong continued to stress maintaining safe health practices such as wearing a mask, hand sanitizing, and social distancing. He said the turnout to county offices since re-opening has doubled.

“We’re thankful to those that have patiently waited in line and for following our new safety protocols,” Strong said. “They are working well.”

Crestwood CEO: What We’re Doing, What You’re Doing, is Working

Universal Source Control.

That’s the new buzz phrase coming from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) regarding the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said that was a “fancy way to say, ‘We can’t tell who all has it, we might each have it ourselves. If we all put a mask on, we’re going to significantly reduce the virus’ ability to be passed back and forth.’ ’’

Hudson, joining Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong at the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers, said the CDC issued a statement declaring cloth masks as the best option concerning personal protection equipment (PPE). They should be kept clean and dry.

“Wear a mask and keep your virus from me,’’ she said.

Hudson also said a current model shows the virus peaking in the state April 23.

Madison County statistics regarding COVID-19 are positive.

  • Of the 4,043 confirmed cases statewide, as of early Wednesday, only 191, just three more than what was reported Monday, have been within county borders with three deaths of the state’s verified 116. Jefferson and Mobile counties have both reported 17 deaths and two other counties are in double digits.
  • In two weeks, Madison County, the state’s third-largest, has gone from having the second-most confirmed cases behind Jefferson County to fourth and now sixth.
  • A model that earlier projected 8,000 deaths in Alabama from the has gone down first to 634 and recently to 450.
  • Between Crestwood and Huntsville Hospital’s facilities, eight people are hospitalized with the virus and 21 have been discharged.

“So far, so good,’’ Hudson said of Madison County. “We’re on a solid track to claim success in flattening the curve.

“It doesn’t mean we have beaten COVID, it just means what we’re doing, what you’re doing, is working.’’

Strong said plans are being worked out as the discussion for reopening business is in the works. Finley said Gov. Kay Ivey is holding conference calls with mayors to gather information about reopening.

That date is still in question.

Earlier in the week, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said when it does happen it might have to come in “waves.’’

“We have a team of people in the city who is already looking at that and looking at how we would reopen,” Battle said. “We don’t know if it will be in one week, two weeks, three weeks, or six weeks. But we do know at some point we’ll re-open, we want to make sure we’re ahead of the game when we do.”

While the governor determines when the state will reopen, local governments will determine how it unfolds.

“It will be our job to define who opens up and how quickly,’’ Battle said. “That’s usually left to the local governments, it will be our job to enforce it as we go through it.”

Hudson warned against not wearing PPE and observing the six-foot social distancing rule would be a mistake even with talk of reopening escalating.

“Where one graduation party, one funeral, one wedding, one gathering where people aren’t careful away from having a spike in cases,’’ she said.

“We’re nowhere close to declaring victory,’’ Strong said.

 

Hospital CEO: Worst of Pandemic Could be Behind Us

If Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers is right, the worst of the novel coronavirus pandemic could be behind the local community.

At Saturday’s COVID-19 news briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers, Spillers was highly optimistic.

He reported the number of in-patients Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center facilities have dwindled to a total of six. His hospital had a high of 13 and that figure is now four.

Spillers said about 2,000 of Huntsville Hospital’s 15,000-strong workforce have been furloughed due to the closing of out-patient facilities and the postponement of elective surgeries. Spillers said those employees were directed on how to get unemployment and hoped they would soon be back on the job.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley, who joined Spillers and Madison County EMA Director Jeff Birdwell on Saturday, stressed the need for people to be aware of scams with personal stimulus checks close to rolling out from the federal government.

Finley reminded everyone scammers could attempt contact through e-mail, text messaging and phone calls.

“Everybody needs to be careful about anything they click or answer from an unknown source,’’ he said.

In other highlights:

  • Finley said anyone suspicious of possible scammers should visit the Better Business Bureau website at bbb.org/us/al/huntsville or call 256-533-1640.
  • Spillers said virus testing was done this past week on 50 people in the homeless community and would continue on a daily basis this week.
  • Finley said his office was continuing to receive calls and e-mails regarding the renewal of licenses such as car tags since municipal, county and state offices are closed. People needing to renew licenses can do so at madisoncountyal.gov. He said there would be “leeway’’ given to tags needing renewal in March and April, but anyone needed to renew should do so online to avoid what is sure to be a large rush when offices reopen.

Spillers said his team, while planning for a worst-case scenario they see in the projected models, doesn’t expect a major increase in COVID-19 patients. He believes the models are wrong and his team came up with its own model using measurables that other models use.

If there is a peak it should come within a week to 10 days, he predicts based on the current trend. As of Saturday, there were 3,032 confirmed positive tests in the state, and 177 in the county with three deaths.

“If people keep doing what they’re doing (the numbers) are not going to go up,’’ he said.

If he’s wrong, Spillers said Huntsville Hospital’s main facility downtown could take on as many as 500 more patients than currently are there.

“We’re prepared for a massive number of patients,’’ he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get them.’’

Spillers said supplies “are good”’ and more are arriving this week.

The current virus hot spot is Marshall County, where the number of positive tests at Huntsville Hospital facilities in Albertville and Boaz has been rising. But only two patients are currently in-patient.

However, while Spillers said testing done at facilities across the region was down from 400 to 200 on Friday there is a caveat.

“Like everything I give you at these press conferences, that (number) could change quickly if we don’t pay attention to what we need to be doing,’’ he said.