3 months ago

UAB epidemiologist answers questions about what to expect with coronavirus cases during the holidays

The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States and in Alabama has increased over the past few weeks. With Thanksgiving and the December holidays around the corner, health care experts are urging people to continue to stay vigilant when it comes to reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, answers questions about the uptick in cases, what to expect when it comes to the number of cases over the holidays, what can be done to slow the spread, and how to stay safe and healthy while gathering with family.

What are we currently seeing in Alabama right now, and what should we expect to see when it comes to case numbers over the holidays?

There is a lot happening in the community and a lot that will happen over the course of the next few months. October was a beautiful month, and people could be outside and not inside their homes. We are also moving more into cooler weather months, and anytime people are together inside there is a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission.

There have been events like Halloween and homecomings at schools where people have been getting together possibly more than they were previously, and there is a chance that COVID-19 is going to continue to increase based on what we’ve seen in the last two weeks. The cases have gone up across the state, particularly since August, when we saw a big boom in cases right when universities and schools started up. That settled down, and then in October we really started to see this increase that possibly was coming from the K-12 students getting back together from activities around school events.

How will the current number of cases impact what we see in the next few months?

Basically, what happens in the next two weeks really matters for how we will spend the first part of 2021 and possibly even the end of 2021. Cases that are occurring right now are cases that could be taken home at Thanksgiving when people get together with family and friends. Thanksgiving is a particularly problematic holiday because people get together inside, we share meals together, and we have a good time around the table with family and friends. This year, that is not nearly as safe as it has been in the past. Gatherings greater than 10 people pose a substantial risk in terms of one of the people being COVID-19-positive and not knowing. Combined with eating, drinking, socializing and laughing, it is something that could lead to substantial coronavirus transmission, which again sets us up for the holidays that come in December when people get back together in predominantly indoor spaces.

Now is a particularly challenging time, and we are asking people to be diligent. Continue to wear your masks, and keep gatherings small with fewer than 10 people when you are indoors. These efforts will help slow the transmission as we go through this holiday season.

College students will be going home for their Thanksgiving break in a few weeks. What are the concerns about their going home to their communities and possibly bringing the coronavirus to areas that have not been as affected as larger cities? What can they do to prevent bringing the virus home?

As students prepare to head home for their breaks, they should be very careful about their behavior in the 10 days leading up to going home. What you are doing those 10 days before you go home and whom you come into contact with are very important. If you are coming into contact with people you are not regularly around, you may become infected and not know it before you head home. It takes three to five days for you to become symptomatic and build up enough of the virus to spread it to others.

Students should avoid high-risk situations. These are gatherings with 10 or more people indoors, especially in places where people are raising their voices to talk, sing or shout. Any places where you have to raise your voice to be heard and are around others who do not have masks on are high-risk environments. I recommend avoiding high-risk settings 10 to 14 days before traveling home, especially if you are going to be around people who are at higher risk of suffering from COVID-19 complications.

How can people have a safe Thanksgiving gathering?

One way to have a safe Thanksgiving gathering is to do it outdoors if possible. If not, limit the number of people to 10 or fewer. If you are indoors, space people out so they are not eating right next to each other. If you can keep people 6 feet apart, that is the best-case scenario. If indoors, open up windows so there is more ventilation. If you have a larger group or do not have room for people to eat at once 6 feet apart, try eating in shifts.

It’s important to remember that you are gathering with the people you love most in your life. You’re going to be laughing and you’re going to be carrying on, and that just leads to excess production of fluid from your mouth and nose as you get excited when you’re talking. If those fluids happen to land on someone’s plate and you are infectious, that is how COVID-19 is spread. This is why it is necessary to keep people apart and distanced. Finally, wash your hands and make sure your loved ones are also washing their hands. Keep hand sanitizer out, and make sure others are practicing safe hand hygiene.

Is there such a thing as “testing out of quarantine,” and what should you do if you are told to quarantine?

There is no way to test out of quarantine. Let’s say that you were told you were exposed because you were in close contact with somebody who tested positive — that means you were less than 6 feet away from that person for more than 15 minutes. That is considered a close contact and means you have been exposed. No matter what the test says, you have to stay home for 14 days. Even if the test is negative and you feel fine, you must stay home during that time period to prevent it from spreading to others.

If you’ve been told you need to quarantine, that means you need to quarantine for 14 days from the time of exposure. It is absolutely critical that you stay home during that time. This is so you do not infect anyone else.

Do you think there is a chance there will be new stay-at-home orders in the United States?

There is always a possible scenario in which we could see different counties or states having to ramp back up and issue more of a stay-at-home model. This is a really serious infectious disease, and if it hits vulnerable populations like older people or if the virus mutates, it could lead to additional stay-at-home orders. Today the virus is predominantly lethal for people over the age of 80. However, viruses change, and there is nothing to say that it couldn’t change and impact young people. This is why we very carefully monitor the virus and monitor how many people have COVID-19 and die from it. We want to understand the impact of it and give that information to our governmental leaders so they can decide the best way to protect the public.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama at Birmingham)

1 hour ago

National gang leader from Birmingham sentenced to 40 years on federal charges

Two leaders of the Gangster Disciples, a notorious national gang, were sentenced on Friday in federal court for a racketeering conspiracy involving murder.

Shauntay Craig, aka “Shake,” of Birmingham, was sentenced to 40 years in prison. The 42-year-old Craig previously pleaded guilty in August 2019 to racketeering conspiracy involving murder and drug trafficking.

He was a “Board Member,” the highest-ranking position nationally in the Gangster Disciples besides the single chairman of the board atop the organization. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Craig was responsible for violence, drug trafficking and murders, including orchestrating the murder of a government informant in Colorado to protect his drug empire.

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Additionally, Donald Glass, aka “Smurf,” of Georgia was sentenced to life plus 120 months in prison. Glass, 30, was convicted by a federal jury in May 2019 of racketeering conspiracy involving murder, discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, causing death through the use of a firearm, and other firearms crimes.

Glass led the “H.A.T.E. Committee,” a specialized enforcement team within the Gangster Disciples that allegedly reigned terror through numerous murders, shootings and robberies. As leader of the H.A.T.E. Committee, Glass reportedly ordered his band of teenage shooters, including a juvenile who Glass groomed to be an assassin, to shoot and kill more than 10 people.

“As leaders of the Gangster Disciples, these defendants terrorized communities across the country by engaging in, and ordering others to engage in, multiple acts of violence, including murder,” stated Nicholas L. McQuaid, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “The significant sentences imposed upon defendant Craig for his national leadership role in the gang, and defendant Glass for his creation of an army of teenagers who shot and killed indiscriminately, demonstrate that even the most sophisticated and ruthless gangs are no match for the coordinated efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement.”

The sentencing occurred in the Northern District of Georgia; numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies across multiple states investigated the case.

According to the charges and other information presented in court, the Gangster Disciples are a national gang with roots in Chicago dating back to the 1970s. The gang is highly structured, with a hierarchy of leadership posts known as “Positions of Authority.” The gang strictly enforces rules for its members, the most important of which is “Silence and Secrecy” – a prohibition on cooperating with law enforcement. Violations of the rule are punishable by death. Evidence at trial showed that the Gangster Disciples were responsible for at least 24 shootings from 2011 through 2015, including 12 murders.

“The Gangster Disciples are a ruthless gang that preyed upon our communities for far too long, and Craig and Glass were the driving force behind the devastation the gang caused,” said Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office. “It is our goal to dismantle these organized, violent criminal enterprises and we could not do it without the efforts of the FBI-led Safe Streets Gang Task Force and its state and local partners.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

ADPH’s Dr. Scott Harris urges lawmakers to address COVID vaccine questions directly to the agency, not through the media

Last week, four state senators criticized the Alabama Department of Public Health’s (ADPH) efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it a “kink” in the pipeline.

In a release provided to the media, State Sens. Jim McClendon (R-Springville), Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), Tom Whatley (R-Auburn) and Randy Price (R-Opelika) warned shortcomings in vaccine distribution was coming at the cost of lives.

During an appearance on this week’s broadcast of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said while he welcomed hearing from the lawmakers, he would have preferred to have heard from them directly and not through the media. He also insisted the answer to their questions was available on the ADPH’s dashboard website.

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“We always appreciate hearing from legislators or anyone that has concerns about that,” Harris said. “We’re very happy to respond to that and get the correct information out. The gist of the letter, which was not sent to us. It was actually sent to the media. But the gist of the letter was that somehow Alabama has a kink in the supply of its vaccines, and we’re not giving enough vaccines because vaccines aren’t being given quickly enough. And I would say, first of all, we certainly acknowledge we want to give vaccines as quickly as possible, but that’s actually an incorrect understanding of how the vaccine distribution works. Vaccines in the U.S. are distributed according to population to each state. Whether we give vaccines quickly or slowly — it does not determine what our supply is. We get around 50,[000] to 60,000 doses per week because that’s Alabama’s share by population of the total amount being manufactured.”

“There were some questions in the letter about why certain data wasn’t available, which actually is available,” he continued. “I wish we had an opportunity to answer those questions before those questions were sent to the media. But we do post on our dashboard every day updated daily total number of doses that are shipped in Alabama and how many have been given. We have that broken down by date for anyone to see. And so, I think there are legitimate questions about could we be doing this faster, and the answer is we’re doing everything we can to do be doing it faster. But I wish we had a chance to respond to that letter before everyone in the state was asking us about it.”

McClendon, the chairman of the Alabama Senate’s Health Committee, responded to Harris’ remarks on “Capitol Journal” with a pledge to file legislation that would give the executive and legislative branches oversight authority over the ADPH via text to Yellowhammer News on Sunday.

“Neither the legislative branch nor the executive branch have any authority over the ADPH or the State Public Health Officer,” McClendon wrote. “The bill I have prepared and ready to file corrects that. I’ll file it once everyone that wants to co-sponsor has an opportunity.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

16 hours ago

College football overcomes the pandemic

Last year was unlike any other. January 2021, however, offered a familiar sight: Alabama won its sixth national title under coach Nick Saban. The 2020 Crimson Tide featured Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith, many other award winners, and rank among the greatest teams in history.

Before we debate history and look forward to next season, we should celebrate the tremendous sacrifices required of players to play through COVID-19. Coaches and staff also went beyond the call of duty but were getting paid. Most players will never play professionally and deserve a big “Thank You.”

College football is always demanding, but in 2020, players faced impositions like repeated testing, contact tracing and quarantine rules. They had to navigate virtual meetings, social distancing and masks on the sidelines. Many programs basically isolated players in the athletic dorms upon their return to campus in June. Marshall’s players only left Huntington for road games; Army’s players did not see their parents after the start of June.

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In 2020, each conference decided how many games to play and four FBS conferences initially canceled their seasons. The SEC opted for a 10-game, conference-only schedule; the ACC and Big 12 allowed one nonconference game. Independents faced a nightmare, leading Notre Dame to play in a conference for the first time in the program’s history.

Game postponements due to COVID-19 began immediately. Troy’s season opener on Labor Day weekend was one of the first contests postponed. The chaos extended to television; Alabama’s November 14 primetime game on CBS against LSU was postponed.

Postponements led to scheduling on the fly. California and UCLA played on November 15 (a Sunday) after their games that week were called off. BYU agreed on Thursday to play a nationally televised game at Coastal Carolina two days later. The ensuing battle of unbeatens was one of the year’s best games.

Athletics departments reduced seating, when local governments allowed fans at all. Concessions and stadium entrances were reconfigured for social distancing. The adjustments reduced revenue and increased costs.

The 2020 season offers valuable economic and life lessons. Perhaps the greatest is the virtue of flexibility. Perhaps nobody exhibited this more than Alabama’s coach Saban, known for trying to control everything around his program. As the coach said, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to keep everything in some kind of a controlled mechanism,” but he realized that, “this year that hasn’t been possible.”

People make life plans involving a career and where to live, but our economy does not always accommodate. Our market economy creates the enormous prosperity we enjoy today. We find a way to contribute within the division of labor and then invest in education and training. Yet businesses sometimes fail and new technology can eliminate the jobs we’ve trained for. A willingness to adapt serves us and the economy well.

Conferences and not the NCAA control FBS football. Each conference decided whether to play, as opposed to one decision by the NCAA. When six conferences showed by example football could be played safely, the others launched abbreviated seasons.

Federalism similarly decentralizes decision-making across the states. Georgia and Colorado showed economies could reopen safely; Alabama and others showed that students could safely attend school. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials have criticized America’s federalism. We should be glad that Washington could not shut our entire nation down.

Universities faced enormous criticism for playing this season. As Alan Dowd points out in a recent piece for the American Institute for Economic Research, challenges and uncertainty can be viewed in two ways: as obstacles to be overcome, or as reasons to quit. College football gave us an example of the former. Similarly, gyms, restaurants and retailers figured out how to operate safely when politicians allowed.

Entrepreneurs starting new businesses face long odds and innumerable obstacles requiring hard work, ingenuity, and courage. College football showed us that even a pandemic can be overcome.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

16 hours ago

VIDEO: Biden inaugurated, America First is over, Alabama in danger of losing a U.S. House seat and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Party Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Now that Joe Biden is president, what should Americans expect from his administration?

— Is former President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda over, and who benefits from the first actions taken by the new President of the United States?

— Will Alabama actually lose a U.S. House seat because of a Biden executive action that will allow illegal immigrants to be counted for apportionment?

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Jackson and Handback are joined by Alabama State House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) to discuss President Joe Biden, the upcoming legislative session and Daniels’ support for coronavirus lawsuit protection for Alabama businesses.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” at legislators who want to have a special session for gambling when they can get the job done during the session and give people a vote on this issue.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

18 hours ago

South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy

From a Grand Bay bedroom decorated with posters from forensic TV shows such as “Bones” and “Dexter,” Olivia McCarter spends long hours on her laptop working to identify people and solve crimes.

Though just a sophomore at the University of South Alabama, where she’s studying anthropology and criminal justice, the 19-year-old is a senior intern with a Massachusetts company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Her team uses DNA analysis and online genealogy databases to match chromosomes, build family trees and identify suspects and victims.

Just in the last year, McCarter helped solve three cases.

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In April, she joined a Redgrave team that identified the body of a man found along the Missouri River back in 1979.

“That was Harry – Harry was my first forensic case,” she said. “We worked nonstop for three days and solved it on the fourth day, which is really fast. I basically did not go to sleep, because I didn’t want to miss anything. It was exciting because we had such great matches. We found this man and he was perfect. He fit into the tree so perfectly. We knew it had to be him.”

Her second case was the 1984 rape and murder of Christine Jessop, a 9-year-old girl from Queensville, Ontario. Years before, DNA evidence freed the man charged with her death in one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.

Redgrave researchers worked for months this summer before genealogy and DNA records pointed to Calvin Hoover, a man who had been a friend of the Jessop family, as the likely killer. Hoover committed suicide in 2015.

“I found his name at 2 a.m. one night,” McCarter said. “That genealogy was so hard, compared to Harry’s. All of these people had 12 kids, and their kids had 12 kids, and then I had to keep going until I found Calvin. I knew he had to be from these parents, but I could not find any kids until I found three, all at once. I found them through a voting record, because they all lived in the same household in Ontario.”

Her third case was the one that hit closer to home.

In 1982, the body of an 18-month-old girl was discovered in the Escatawpa River just across the state line in Mississippi. The girl became known as “Delta Dawn,” or “Baby Jane Doe,” but she was never identified and what happened to her remained a mystery.

When the case was reopened last year, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department turned to the Othram DNA laboratory, where a team of Redgrave forensic genetic genealogists worked. A fresh DNA sample and genealogy records led police to a child and mother reported missing from Joplin, Missouri. Family there said the mother had met a man and was moving to start a new life in Florida. She remains missing and her body has never been found. Her child was identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich.

While working to identify the girl, McCarter would visit her grave in Jackson County Memorial Park. She would clean the gravesite marked “Baby Jane, Known Only to God.” She would bring flowers.

“Somebody had to remember,” she said. “Until her name was returned to her.”

The “Delta Dawn” case helped her make contacts in Mississippi law enforcement. She met everyone from FBI agents to sheriff’s officers.

Lt. Eddie Clark, one of the Jackson County investigators, remembers when McCarter visited the department to explain what Redgrave Research had found and how they had found it.

“We were floored by her skill set and how deep she could dig,” Clark said. “Excellent job, she did an excellent job. It was crazy how they did this, how they went back and built a family tree. I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

“I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

The ‘Wizard’ and the Intern

McCarter was born in Texas but grew up in Alabama. Her parents own several feed stores near Grand Bay, where she works part-time and saves money to pay her own tuition at South.

Olivia – “Liv” to her friends – was home-schooled by her mother. Her independent study included genealogy and then forensics, though no one in the family expected her research to go so far and so fast.

“We’re extremely proud of our daughter,” said Tracy McCarter. “She showed an aptitude very early on. She’s an excellent online researcher. What’s she’s doing now is outside our experience, our areas of expertise, so we’re kind of learning right along with her.”

She describes Olivia as an introvert who goes her own way. After years of home school, the McCarters were worried that she might have trouble adjusting to college in Mobile. Instead, she thrived.

“It was very different,” she said. “I didn’t think I would acclimate, but I did. I met so many amazing professors, and I made a lot of friends.”

Dr. Philip Carr, professor of anthropology and the Chief Calvin McGhee Endowed Professor of Native American Studies, taught McCarter in several classes. She is quiet and unassuming, but often winds up leading her class team. Then she started telling him about her extracurricular work in forensic genealogy.

“That came as a complete surprise,” Carr said. “You don’t expect a student to already have these kinds of experiences. We hope that our students have an internship by their senior year.”

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, McCarter began spending more time at home in Grand Bay. She studies, works at the feed store business and spends hour after hour online.

She likes to wear jeans, Air Jordans and a pink cap that says “SOUTH.” She has several tattoos on her left arm. She wears glasses that fog up behind a face mask decorated with pictures of cats.

McCarter talks with her forensic research colleagues almost every day. Her mentor, Anthony Redgrave, is a co-founder of the company and a pioneer in the field.

“He’s basically a wizard,” she said. “I owe everything to him.”

Redgrave, who’s trained law enforcement officers, often works on cold cases with DNA samples provided by police departments across the country. He teaches his team members how to compare DNA records and genealogy records to triangulate relationships within a family tree. The latter has been made easier in recent years with commercial genealogy websites, along with organizations such as NamUs, an information clearinghouse and resource center for missing person cases.

McCarter was a quick study. He first met her on genealogy websites and forums, where he noticed that her hypotheses and educated guesses usually turned out to be correct.

“She just got it, you know?” he said. “She really fit the bill of exactly what we wanted in an intern.”

Redgrave has been impressed with her teamwork on investigations this year. She’s shown the patience and perseverance to see cases through. She’s taken the lead in some projects.

“Her memory and attention to detail really set her apart,” he said. “She’s really good at analyzing things off the cuff and then remembering something important from months ago.”

Unfinished Business

McCarter is looking forward to her next semester at South, where she’s a member of the Student Anthropological Society. She hopes to graduate in 2023. She’s already planning to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D in forensic anthropology.

“I don’t want to teach, though,” she said. “I want to work with law enforcement.”

McCarter is the kind of a dogged researcher who also has the people skills to talk with family members. She still keeps in touch with Harry’s children from her first case.

“I talk to them often,” she said. “They follow my genealogy stuff. I guess we’ll always be connected.”

At Redgrave Research, she remains the youngest intern, but has become a team leader. She says she still has a lot to learn. She’s looking forward to new cases.

“I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles,” she said. “I haven’t yet, at least.”

I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles.

In her bedroom, McCarter keeps a framed photograph of Alisha Ann Heinrich from the “Delta Dawn” case. She still visits the girl’s memorial in Jackson County Memorial Park.

Next to her plot is the grave of another baby girl whose body has never been identified. For McCarter, this is unfinished business.

“Definitely,” she said. “I won’t give up on that until it’s solved, too.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)