The effects of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus have subsided in Alabama almost as quickly as they peaked.
In a BirminghamWatch analysis of the state’s pandemic data, the 7-day moving average of new daily cases has fallen below the 1,000 mark, six weeks after it surpassed 5,500 — the highest reading since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported on Wednesday that the 7-day average stands at 893.14 new cases per day. That reading comes a day after dropping below 1,000 and is now roughly one-seventh of the record set Sept. 1.
By comparison, the recent Delta surge took seven weeks to skyrocket from the previous low point of 121 cases per day on July 7 to the peak. And though the current level is still considerably higher than that low point, the downward direction of the curve is very close to the inverse of the upward slope in summer. Read more.
About $46.8 billion. Billion with a B.
That’s how much federal COVID-19 relief money has gone to Alabama residents, businesses and government agencies since the pandemic began.
About $30.3 billion of that has been given directly to individuals and businesses to assist them, Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency, told state lawmakers recently. About $6.3 billion was in the Paycheck Protection Program, forgivable loans to help businesses weather the economic drought caused by COVID-related shutdowns.
And nearly twice that much, $12.6 billion, has gone directly to individuals in stimulus checks.
The money had a big impact on the state’s record tax receipts for fiscal 2021, which ended last week, Fulford said. That’s especially true in the Education Trust Fund, where sales and income tax are the main contributors. Read more.
Ava Wise was thinking first of others as she considered what would have happened if the federal Paycheck Protection Program had not provided her employer with money to pay her during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We may not have been open to serve people,” said Wise, director of Project Hopewell, a nonprofit formed under Hopewell Baptist Church in Birmingham’s Hillman Station Neighborhood.
Effects of the COVID-19 relief program hit close to home for Wise and others who benefited from federal relief money that was paid to businesses, state and local governments, and churches and other organizations.
Without the payroll assistance, she said, “We can’t pay our bills. We can’t buy food. It cuts off our livelihood.”
Although it is unusual for churches, synagogues, mosques and groups with religious affiliations to receive taxpayer money, many were awarded federal stimulus funds during the pandemic. While churches may be tax-exempt, their employees pay taxes to city, state and federal governments. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s PPP program was designed to cover the payrolls of recipients.
A review by BirminghamWatch of federal records listed about 321 applicants from Jefferson County that identified themselves as religious organizations received loans totaling $39.7 million during a 14-month period under the PPP program.
Alabamians have a chance right now to substantially reduce COVID cases in the state, UAB officials said in a press conference Wednesday.
The state is seeing a downtick in the number of new COVID cases; in fact, the Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported the number of new cases had dropped for the 17th consecutive day.
Delta is the primary variant of the COVID virus that is circulating in the state and in the U.S., said Russell Griffin, Ph.D and associate professor at the UAB School of Public Health. Continuing vaccinations could prevent another variant from forming.
UAB epidemiologist Dr. Rachael Lee added that higher vaccination rates, the advent of booster shots and natural immunity built up by those who have had COVID all are weapons in the war against the virus.
Making headway now depends on the community not becoming complacent but continuing to wear masks, get vaccinated and stay home when they are sick, she said. Read more.
Two incumbent city councilors and one incumbent school board member were unseated during Birmingham’s municipal runoff election Tuesday.
Council President William Parker and District 9 Councilor John Hilliard lost their seats to political newcomers Jonathan “J.T.” Moore and LaTonya Tate, respectively, while Douglas Ragland lost his seat on the Birmingham Board of Education to his predecessor, Sherman Collins Jr.
Jason Meadows, meanwhile, handily beat Le’Darius Hilliard in a race for the school board’s District 9 seat. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers celebrated Friday afternoon as the governor signed bills to spend $1.3 billion on two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons. A smaller women’s prison and renovations to some existing prisons will come later.
Ivey said that the building of the new prisons is the legally, fiscally and morally right thing as the state addresses its prisons crisis.
“Let me be clear, while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future – and I am committed to that as are many legislators – today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward,” Ivey said. Read more.
Also in the Legislature:
Legislature, Ivey Approve Parole Change Bill
The Alabama Department of Corrections has spent more than $25.2 million on overtime this fiscal year trying to fill shifts in its understaffed prisons.
Overtime and the chronic staffing shortage is part of the discussions this week as lawmakers make their case for two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons. Since the beginning of fiscal 2016, ADOC has spent about $185 million on overtime, according to information given to Alabama Daily News by the Alabama State Personnel Department.
Plans for the prisons passed the House Wednesday and a Senate committee Thursday. The Senate is expected to vote on the plan Friday and could then adjourn the special session.
Proponents of the plan say the new sites will be easier to staff than the old and dangerous lockups that have about half the number of needed employees.
“Part of what we hope to do with this new construction is improve the conditions and the safety of those that work there, so it won’t be so difficult to hire new employees,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told ADN. Read more.
Previously in the Legislature
Prison Construction Plan Passes House, Moves to the Senate
Alabama’s plan to use $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief money on new prisons has caught the attention of top Democrats in Congress who moved Monday to try to prevent the expenditure.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, sent a letter to Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to stop Alabama from “misusing” a portion of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
“Directing funding meant to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is in direct contravention of the intended purposes of the ARP legislation and will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis,” Nadler wrote.
Alabama legislators, however, said the plan to help fix Alabama’s prison crowding issues is a legitimate use of federal funds sent to states to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic. Read more.
Labor data shows recent increases in wages and workers in Alabama’s leisure and hospitality industry, though the number of workers has not reached pre-pandemic levels and some restaurants still are scrambling to hire help.
One Birmingham restaurateur says he’s still dealing with major staffing shortages.
“It’s crazy … I work more now than I did 50 years ago, when I first came to the United States,” said George Sarris, owner of Southside’s Fish Market, who came to Birmingham from Greece.
The pandemic had a major effect on restaurants and their workers. Dozens of Birmingham-area restaurants closed their doors due to the pandemic. The research firm Datassential reported in late March that 10% of all restaurants in the country had closed permanently since the pandemic started.
But hospitality employment numbers have improved recently, both throughout the country and in Alabama. Read more.
Pfizer released trial results Monday of a COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 that uses one-third the dosage given adults, a move one pediatric expert called a foretaste of developments to come.
Pfizer should have the results before the Food and Drug Administration later this month, said Dr. David Kimberlin, professor and co-director of UAB and Children’s of Alabama’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.
“(Dr. Anthony) Fauci has said it would be authorized before Halloween,” he added.
Pfizer said its study shows “a favorable safety profile and robust neutralizing antibody” for the 5-11 age group.
The study gave Pfizer the results the company wanted to see, Kimberlin said. The study used one-third the adult dosage for children, which was selected for its safety, tolerability and immunogenicity, according to Pfizer.
MONTGOMERY — More than $5 billion of unemployment benefits has been blocked from being sent out in Alabama due to concerns of fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
That is an unprecedented amount and a problem seen all across the country, ADOL Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said.
“Since the pandemic, ADOL has received more claims than ever before, which has significantly increased the risks of fraud,” Washington said in a statement to Alabama Daily News. “Federal programs with increased weekly benefits made it even more appealing to criminals looking to defraud the system.” Read more.
For the first time in the history of Alabama, COVID-19 last year pushed the state’s death rate higher than the birthrate.
“The state population is shrinking, and we have never seen that happen before in the history of Alabama,” Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Wednesday.
In fact, more people died in Alabama last year than any other year on record.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reports that 7,181 people died from COVID-19 last year. Read more.
Researchers say there always will be new variant strains of the COVID-19 virus, although all the strains won’t be as deadly as delta.
The delta strain has made COVID more deadly for the unvaccinated. It is responsible for 90% of the 40 million COVID cases in the U.S and the deaths of 648,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It spreads much faster and may cause more severe cases than other variants, according to the CDC.
The delta strain is not alone. There are many variants being studied by researchers and scientists.
Last Friday, the World Health Organization added the mu strain to its list of COVID variants of interest. It joins eta, iota, kappa and lambda on the list. Read more.
Monoclonal antibody therapy to lessen the severity of COVID’s delta strain may be the only drug at this time on which vaxxers and anti-vaxxers can agree.
Some anti-vaccination advocates are counting on being able to get the therapy if they contract COVID, while people who are vaccinated but still get the virus turn to it to lessen the effects of the disease.
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to clear infections. For viruses such as COVID-19, these proteins are critical to stop the infection.
But the bottom line is that the therapy does not work unless it is given in the first 10 days of COVID symptoms.
“The problem is that our immune system takes two to three weeks to make good antibodies,” said UAB professor and Dr. Turner Overton. Read more.
Cal Markert chuckled a little when he said his first name was Cal. That’s not quite accurate, as he was born Ralph Calloway Markert.
“My mother’s dad was Ralph,” he explained. “But I go by Cal.”
Already, some have begun calling him by his new title — county manager. The Jefferson County Commission recently selected the deputy county manager to succeed retiring Tony Petelos in that role.
Markert, 49, officially becomes the county’s second manager on Oct. 1. His tenure with the county goes back to his 2005 hiring to lead the county’s Roads and Transportation Department.
County Commission President Jimmie Stephens often referred to Markert as “Can-Do Cal” because he tended to accomplish the missions assigned to him.
“He was very, very receptive to what the needs of the people were,” Stephens said. “That’s unusual in today’s environment. The world is filled with bureaucracy right now and people that work through the system and with the system.
“Cal has been unique in that he has worked around the system to make sure that our infrastructure and our citizens are well-served,” he said. “That didn’t go unnoticed, nor unappreciated.” Read more.
MONTGOMERY — No final decisions were made about what racist language should be taken out of the Alabama constitution on Thursday, but discussion is ongoing about why certain sections should be removed that may not appear obviously racist.
Sections of the constitution that mention segregation of schools or a state poll tax have more explicit language that led to the discrimination of Black Alabamians, but other sections regarding incarcerated labor or public-school systems may be harder to navigate, leaders said. The committee designated to make the edits decided to hold off on taking any votes until the public comment period ends Sept. 7. Read more.
Sewell, Alabama’s Lone Congressional Democrat, Seeks to Strengthen Voting Rights, Defeat Party Infighting
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, the lone Democrat in Alabama’s seven-member congressional delegation, is seeking to grow the party with a two-pronged approach — countering Republican-backed voting restrictions while raising money to protect Democratic incumbents against challenges from the left.
First elected in 2011, Sewell has for four successive congresses introduced legislation to restore much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that mandated federal oversight of election laws in areas with a history of racial discrimination. That historic legislation was largely struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The court’s ruling that the law’s requirements were outdated led to state legislatures issuing a ream of voting restrictions in the wake of that decision.
This year, Sewell again introduced the bill, House Resolution 4, newly named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in honor of the Alabama-born Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who died last year.
As the newly reelected mayor of Birmingham stepped to the stage upstairs at The Fennec in the Parkside District, a few hundred people chanted, “We’re With Woodfin,” and “Four More Years.”
Indeed, they were with Randall Woodfin at the ballot box on Tuesday. As a result, the incumbent pushed aside seven challengers and earned another four-year term in office.
“The energy in this room tonight doesn’t reflect me,” he said. “It reflects us. The energy in this room is the definition of Team Birmingham.”
In total, 36,790 Birmingham residents went to the polls Tuesday, for a voter turnout of 25.27%.
Incumbents did well in the City Council election, with six of the nine incumbent councilors being returned to their seats outright and two more heading to an Oct. 5 runoff. Incumbents on the city’s board of education didn’t fare as well. Read more.
Taliban Takeover Leaves Americans More Vulnerable, Says Father of First American Killed In Afghan War
WINFIELD -– With the Taliban again in control of Afghanistan, Johnny Spann says he does not expect the Islamic fundamentalists to be any different than they were when his son Mike died there in the fall of 2001.
“Americans are more vulnerable today than they have been in 20 years because of what is going on in Afghanistan right now,” Spann said Monday in his real estate office on the edge of downtown Winfield, not far from a memorial park that is named after his son, a former Marine and CIA officer who was killed during an uprising of Taliban prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress near the northern Afghan city of Mazir-i-Sharif on Nov. 15, 2001.
Mike Spann was the first American to die in the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2011 ,terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland. A section of highway in the Winfield area bears his name and, for now, so does a monument at the site of his death in Afghanistan. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lawmakers will be back in Montgomery starting Oct. 28 to decide new congressional, state Senate and House and state school board district boundaries in a special session.
The proposed maps, still being drafted, aren’t likely to be made public until late next week, raising some concerns about how much community reaction could be heard in a fast-paced special session. Read more.
The Birmingham Public Library Board of Trustees has delayed a proposed vote to shut down four library branches after receiving criticism from city leaders, including Mayor Randall Woodfin.
In a letter to BPL staff sent out Oct. 8, board President Eunice Johnson Rogers said the board would consider shutting down the BPL’s East Ensley, Ensley, North Avondale and Titusville locations during its Oct. 12 meeting.
“Now we are challenged with supporting Mayor Woodfin’s vision of decreasing the number of Birmingham Public Library physical locations,” Rogers wrote. “After careful consideration, the BPL Board of Trustees recommends the permanent closure of the East Ensley, Ensley, North Avondale and Titusville Branch Libraries. All branch libraries identified for closure are located less than three miles from another BPL location.”
Rogers’ letter said staff from those branches would be reassigned to work at the BPL’s Five Points West, Avondale and North Birmingham branches. Read more.
The commission deciding what changes should be made to Alabama’s constitution is close to a final vote, with most members agreeing Wednesday about alterations to three sections containing racist language.
The group decided to take another week to review all of the final suggested revisions before taking a final vote, most likely during the special session on reapportionment, which could happen as soon as the last week of October.
“I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page because at the end of the day, I’m going to take this document back to the Legislature, and I want to say that this is a document that was bipartisan,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who chairs the commission. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council has revoked the business license of Club Euphoria, an Ensley nightclub deemed a “nuisance” by the surrounding neighborhood.
The council originally considered shutting the club down in June after repeated instances of gun violence inside and outside the club, including the June 13 killing of 21-year-old Euphoria patron Lykeria Briana Taylor. The council was split on revocation then, settling on a 13-week delay to give owners time to tighten up their safety plan.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Monica Hatcher, an attorney representing club owner Morris Bradley, told councilors that the club had “beefed up security” since June, including patrols around the surrounding neighborhoods to prevent club visitors from parking off-site.
But numerous residents argued that Bradley hadn’t done enough to address problems of parking and loud noise. “I have multiple documented occasions where the loud noise and the nuisance was such that neighbors were calling me at all hours of the night,” said Costella Adams Terrell, president of the Rising-West Princeton neighborhood association. Read more.
They say it’s lonely at the top. As Thursday’s meeting of the Jefferson County Commission neared its end, it was lonely on the dais.
Commission President Jimmie Stephens was the only commissioner remaining after others were either absent or had to leave because of other commitments.
“I guess I’m the last man standing on this particular deal,” Stephens said after recessing the session. “This is not the pattern, practice or the way we do business. We have commissioners who had other commitments, and this did run over very long. We wanted to give the citizens an opportunity to speak.
“At the end of that, we did do what was needed and necessary to take care of the business of the county,” he continued. “We’ll have a full quorum next meeting and continue the operations and business.” Read more.
The give-and-take of county government will be apparent in coming weeks as Jefferson County commissioners consider how lines separating the five districts will be redrawn.
Board of Registrars Chairman Barry Stephenson made a presentation during the commission’s committee meeting Tuesday, showing commissioners maps for three options for evenly distributing the county population using 2020 U.S. Census numbers.
Commissioners, following the advice of Stephenson, will advance all three maps for public review. A hearing on the plans will be conducted during the Nov. 4 commission meeting. Read more.
Construction will start early next year on the two 4,000-bed men’s prisons the Alabama Legislature approved after a rapid-fire, five-day special session last week.
The package of bills Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law late Friday includes the borrowing of up to $785 million for the two prisons and the use of $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act for the mega-prisons in central and south Alabama. A second phase of construction allows for a new women’s prison and renovations to three existing men’s prisons.
Prison proposals have floated around the State House for years, dying when they couldn’t overcome turf wars and pricetags.
So, what changed the attitudes of legislators this year?
“There was a recognition of need that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told Alabama Daily News. Read more.
For decades, there’s been talk about a new football stadium for Birmingham. Saturday, it will finally open, when the UAB Blazers play their first home game at the brand new Protective Stadium. Read more.
The state authority charged with distributing up to $263 million in federal funding for emergency rental assistance told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday it has pledged for distribution most of the money, eliminating the risk of a federal take back.
So far, about 3,307 Alabamians have received a total of nearly $22 million in pandemic-related rental assistance. Read more.
The city of Birmingham will purchase 1,000 tickets to every UAB football home game for a total cost of $100,000, the City Council decided Tuesday.
The tickets, which retail between $20 and $45 each, will be dispersed among city employees, youth groups and neighborhood associations, according to a resolution put forth by Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office.
The decision received pushback from the council’s two most senior members, outgoing District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott, who said the city already was supporting UAB football to the tune of $3 million a year and the money could be better spent on city services. Read more.
The proposed plan to build new prisons in Alabama would also allow the purchase of the empty, privately owned prison in Perry County to hold parole violators who are crowding some county jails around the state.
The Perry County Correctional Facility “has always been the Rubik’s Cube of the prison problem that no one’s ever been really able to figure out,” Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole Director Cam Ward told Alabama Daily News.
Built in the 2000s, Ward said, it’s a good 730-bed facility but its remote location and distance from medical care has been a challenge to operations. At one point, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used the space.
“But it’s never been used to capacity,” Ward said.
Ward and other state leaders will meet with GEO Group, the private prison company that owns the site, this week, about the possible purchase.
Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight displayed a more relaxed countenance Thursday when it became clear the 2022 Jefferson County budget would be balanced and approved.
“Since about the middle of July, it’s been one thing after another,” said Knight, who chairs the commission’s finance and budget committees. “The best part of my year is going to be Monday when me and my wife take off for a week.”
The $882,750,611 budget, passed unanimously by the commission, includes a 3% across-the-board raise for county employees. That accounted for an additional $3.3 million to the payroll. “Then you add $1.7 million of merit raises in that next year,” Knight said. “That moves that starting point up $5 million.” Read more.
When a natural disaster strikes a community, residents go to shelter. Public safety workers and journalists go to work.
News organizations usually prioritize the safety of reporters in the field during such events. Often, it’s the reporters who will push the limits on safety in order to deliver vital news to the public. Ethical managers talk them out of it.
But there’s no shortage of instances of reporters subjecting themselves to the brutality of nature to report a weather story. Their aim is to show the public the truth about the conditions. Their critics call it reckless showboating. Read more.
Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is forming a new political action committee, Right Side of History PAC, according to papers filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.
Douglas Turner Jr., treasurer of the Jones campaign, said Jones intends to use the PAC to advocate for causes and candidates he supports. “He intends to better the causes that he’s been involved with – voting rights, civil rights, racial justice,” Turner said. “It’s not a big ‘D’ democratic effort.” Read more.
MONTGOMERY —While state officials have held off offering any kind of statewide COVID-19 vaccine incentives, more than a dozen Alabama community colleges are offering perks for students and staff who get the shot. Read more.
Joe Knight was bearing gifts when he arrived at Tuesday’s meeting of the Jefferson County Commission.
The District 4 commissioner brought awards from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. But beyond the awards – which included administrator of the year for retiring County Manager Tony Petelos – Knight had a prize he received, having been elected vice president of the state body of county commissions.
“We haven’t had anybody from Jefferson County in over 20 years who has been involved as an officer of that organization,” Knight said. “I, along with some encouragement from some people, decided to put my name in the hat, was nominated and then was elected last Thursday.”
Plans to redevelop the former Ensley High School into a 244-unit apartment complex took another step forward Tuesday, despite the continued misgivings of District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt.
The former high school, abandoned since 2006, was sold in April to the North Carolina-based developer Zimmerman Properties for $50,000. Zimmerman, in conjunction with the Housing Authority of Greater Birmingham, plans to redevelop the property into 244 apartment units for those earning between $16,000 and $45,000 annually.
On Tuesday, in a largely procedural vote, the council approved assignment of the project to 2301 Ensley LP, a single-purpose operation created to “protect the project and (its) grant funds in the event of an accident at other properties in the Zimmerman portfolio,” Cornell Wesley, the city’s director of innovation and economic opportunity, told councilors. Read more.
What looked to be a $500,000 cleaning bill for a month raised the eyebrows of Jefferson County Commissioners during their committee meeting Monday morning.
The sheriff’s office had asked for more money during the final weeks of the 2020 fiscal year. The apparent reason was a hefty cleaning bill at the two county jails.
But commissioners learned that increased expenses for feeding prisoners brought on by pandemic protocols contributed to the large request. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama State Board of Education on Thursday passed a resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, a move that supporters said preserves intellectual freedom and opponents said will stifle how history is taught.
The resolution doesn’t appear to have any enforceable power behind it, and state Superintendent Eric Mackey said he believes that no teacher in Alabama will be punished as a result of it.
“We don’t think there is anything in our courses of study — we’ve done a deep dive — that will be in conflict with the current resolution,” Mackey said. “So it really has no effect on our current course of study.”
One day after the Senate passed a $1 billion infrastructure bill, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge visited Birmingham Wednesday. Read more.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the men and women who run Birmingham’s hospitals and the head of the Jefferson County Department of Health appeared jointly before the news media to discuss the latest surge in cases.
But all were unified in one message that’s been repeated many times in the past few months: If you haven’t been vaccinated for the virus, it’s time to get the shot — and quickly.
In the online press conference, the heads of Ascension St. Vincent’s, Brookwood Baptist, Children’s of Alabama, Grandview, Hill Crest Behavioral Health, Medical West and UAB hospitals answered questions about the latest surge in the COVID virus. New cases have skyrocketed to more than 3,000 per day for the past few days, and hospitalizations have jumped from less than 200 statewide to more than 1,700 in less than a month. Read more.