MONTGOMERY — The commission charged with analyzing Alabama’s response to the COVID-19 on Wednesday agreed on questions to state agencies about how they reacted early in the pandemic.
The commission’s work comes as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to hospitalize more Alabamians, 2,845 as of Wednesday, 41 of them children, according to the Alabama Hospital Association. Across the state, 840 people with COVID are in intensive care units, making up 52% of ICUs’ populations.
Hospitals are struggling to staff the needed ICU beds. State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told the commission that a federal team of health care workers is being sent to a hospital in Dothan this weekend to handle the record-high number of COVID hospitalizations they’re seeing.
This marks the second time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has had to deploy extra medical professionals to Alabama in the past week, the first being a 13-member team sent to South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley.
“We’ve asked for the same sort of thing many more times,” Harris said. “And the feds just don’t have anything to send us at this time.”
South Alabama has been the hardest hit by COVID hospitalizations in recent weeks, Harris told the commission.
The commission was formed after a joint resolution passed the Legislature earlier this year and has to submit a report of its findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature by the first day of the 2022 regular legislative session, Jan. 11.
Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, is part of the 11-member commission and proposed a number of questions to ask the agencies.
“They’re basically just questions that ask, when did you know COVID was a problem, who did you tell about it and how did you prepare for it,” Whatley told Alabama Daily News.
Whatley also took the opportunity on Wednesday to ask Harris multiple questions about what led to the decision to issue the first state health orders in 2020, asking to see data that led to the decisions.
Harris later told ADN that his department made the health order decisions in working with the governor’s office and based on the best information at the time.
“We were trying to make decisions based on the consensus of public health experts and so there is some data that you’re likely never to have,” Harris said.
Whatley is part of the group of other state officials who have criticized the state’s first health orders, including a stay-at-home order that required many businesses to close their doors while others deemed “essential” were allowed to stay open.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was quick to defend Harris during Wednesday’s meeting, saying his health order decisions were being made from the science he was seeing and not politics.
“This virus was so new to us,” Singleton said. “To shut down to talk about saving lives, about a store was open here or store was closed down there, it may have saved somebodies’ life, we don’t know.”
Commission co-chair Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he thought Whatley’s line of questioning is needed but doesn’t blame Harris for certain businesses being shut down over others.
“The whole purpose is to find fact, not fault, and some of these questions look like we maybe attacking somebody, but we’re not,” Melson said. “…but there’s no sense in doing this panel if we’re not going to get the tough questions answered.”
Singleton also took the opportunity on Wednesday to ask Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington a number of questions, including what was the rationale for ending the state’s participation in the federally funded pandemic unemployment compensation programs.
Washington responded by saying there were several factors that led to that decision, including the amount of alleged fraud connected to those programs and the high level of job availability in the state.
The panel is required to meet at least three times before the next regular session, one of those times being a public hearing.
Commission co-chair Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, said he doesn’t want the group’s analysis to go outside of the bounds of what the Legislature charged them to do.
“I don’t think this committee, that we’re really prepared to get into a lot of the details here in the short time that we have,” Lee said during the meeting.