By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey announced an extension of her “Safer at Home” public health order on Wednesday, extending the statewide mask mandate until Nov. 8. Ivey also said hospitals and nursing homes will now be allowed to admit one visitor per resident or patient, a change from previous orders.
A motivation to extend the mask order is the need to have a safe environment for poll workers, poll watchers and voters on Election Day, Ivey said at a press conference at the State Capitol.
“Remember that voting in a free and open election is what separates America from many other countries,” Ivey said. “It’s also our sacred duty to vote and I want everyone to do it and do it safely.”
However, Secretary of State John Merrill said Wednesday that wearing a mask will not be required to cast a ballot on Election Day. The order says mask wearing is not required during constitutionally protected activities, including voting.
Ivey said she would be wearing a mask to the voting booth and encourages all Alabamians to do so.
“I’m certainly going to wear my mask because I want to protect poll workers and others who are going into the polls as well,” Ivey said.
Ivey also said that while she hears people’s complaints about wearing a mask when in public, and often shares in those complaints, the evidence that wearing a mask and staying six feet away from others when in public is shown to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the evidence is clear that masks have lowered COVID-19 cases considerably. Harris said the state’s positive test percentage rate is the lowest it has ever been at 7.1% this week.
“We believe that is the reason, or certainly the main reason, that we are seeing improvements,” Harris said during the press conference.
On Wednesday, Alabama Department of Public Health reported 1,147 new cases of COVID-19 and 21 deaths, according to it’s COVID-19 dashboard. In the last 14 days, Alabama has had 14,234 new cases. In total, Alabama has had 154,701 positive cases and has seen 2,540 deaths.
The state’s seven-day average for COVID-19 hospitalizations was at 749 Wednesday, significantly down from 1,550 in early August, according to BamaTracker.com, an independent website that extrapolates data from ADPH.
Along with the extended mask mandate, the order now allows a resident living in a nursing home or long-term care facility to have one visitor present at a time unless there is a compelling reason to limit access.
Ivey said there had been some confusion with the previous health orders on this rule and that they were never meant to prevent someone from accompanying their loved one to the hospital.
“Naturally, we want to do everything in our power to protect the safety of both the patient as well as the health care workers by allowing a loved one to accompany you into a critical health care setting, especially during a vulnerable time in one’s life,” Ivey said. “It’s just simply the right thing to do.”
Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, said in a press release that he approves of this change in the visitation policy for nursing home residents and that his member facilities will be following the guidance on proper visitation procedures released from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“It’s important for nursing home residents and their family members to be able to visit in person and this is another step toward returning life to normal in nursing homes,” Farmer said. “We are pleased CMS is moving in this direction and thankful Gov. Kay Ivey and Dr. Scott Harris amended the state health order to accommodate this change.”
The CMS guidance says for indoor visitation, nursing homes should have no new onset of COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days, not be currently conducting outbreak testing, limit the number of visitors per resident, limit the number of visitors in the building at once and require visitors to wear a mask and practice social distancing during their entire visit.
All visitors of Alabama nursing homes will need to schedule an appointment to visit their loved one, ANHA said.
The order also authorized the counting of absentee ballots earlier, beginning at 7 a.m. Election Day.
“This accommodates the anticipated increase of absentee ballots and ensures that Alabama will continue to provide timely, unofficial election results on election night,” Merrill said in a press release.
In addition, student poll worker interns, who were previously unpaid, may now be compensated $50 on Nov. 3.
“Through funds made available to our office through the CARES Act, we are excited to compensate these student poll worker interns for stepping up and serving their communities as poll workers,” Merrill said.
County probate judges have also now been authorized to conduct remote trainings for precinct election officials and poll workers through live or recorded video or telephone calls.
A plan for how Alabama plans on receiving, transporting, storing and allocating a COVID-19 vaccine is being created, Harris said. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has asked that each state submit a plan by mid-October.
“Obviously we are following very closely the safety data and the efficacy data, that we are sure we have a vaccine product that is going to be safe and effective and I’m confident that information will be available to us and we can make a really good decision on that as we start to receive that vaccine,” Harris said.
Harris said they are working on a plan for how to prioritize who gets the vaccine first, since there will be a limited supply at the beginning, prioritizing those at highest risk of illness or have the highest exposure risk first.
“We want it to be fair and equitable and want the public to understand that we are making those decisions in full daylight so they understand the reasons for the allocation scheme that we will ultimately come up with,” Harris said.
Harris said the vaccine will be free to the public once it is ready to distribute and federal money will be used when necessary for distribution.
Harris also said ADPH is offering help to any hospitals that may need extra resources with handling possible increases in flu and COVID-19 patients, but there are still a lot of unknowns on how the flu season will affect the state.
“I think the real concern is that we just don’t know what flu season looks like in COVID times,” Harris said. “We don’t have an idea of how those intersect. There is certainly reason to believe people can get both at once but honestly, we just don’t know what it’s going to look like.”