The COVID pandemic has changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a year ago. Social distancing, masks, lockdowns, canceled game days, at-home learning...these and many more have become the ‘new normal’.
At the same time, what we ‘know’ has been changing rapidly, sometimes on a daily basis. We’ve gone from an estimated mortality rate for the virus of nearly 15% from about a year ago to about 0.26% most recently. We’ve gone from Dr. Fauci saying “masks don’t work” to “wear two masks, even after you’ve been vaccinated”. “15 days to flatten the curve” has become “maybe sometime next year” when we reach the 70% immune threshold. The hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington hasn’t helped, as many of us have lamented. The virus is mutating rapidly, calling into question both the current and future effectiveness of the two vaccines already on the market, and another one currently in the approval process. And, herd immunity may be as effective against coronavirus as it is against another always-mutating virus--the flu. In other words, not much at all.
Our economy is struggling, with many small businesses already closed and many more barely hanging on. As the evidence accumulates that hard lockdowns are generally ineffective at slowing the spread of the virus, the costs of the lockdowns themselves in terms of lives lost or damaged from increased rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, and suicide, are not insignificant. This has caused some to question the value of further lockdowns, as the damage seems to be in some ways greater than the benefit.
“We have to make sure that whatever we do about COVID, the cure isn’t worse than the disease.”--Martin Houston
Here’s what we do know:
The COVID virus is highly dangerous to the elderly, the infirm, and the chronically ill
Healthy children and young adults seem to be relatively resistant to the illness
Less restrictive and common-sense measures (when combined)--social distancing, masks, covering your nose when you sneeze, staying home if you’re sick, washing your hands, and using sanitizer regularly--can be effective at reducing the spread of the virus
More severe restrictions--hard lockdowns and shutdowns--are not proving effective in slowing the spread of the virus
Vaccination is going rapidly, but it will still be at least this summer before we are able to get enough people vaccinated to reach ‘herd immunity’, and it may be early in 2022 before this happens
A children’s vaccine is still going through the approval process and is weeks to months away
Our schools have been struggling mightily to educate our children using distance learning and other protective measures, but our kids are suffering
Our businesses are hurting, and we must do something to help them NOW
Because what we ‘know’ has been and will continue to change--just like the virus itself--any definite statements I make now may be ineffective or inaccurate on Election Day, or in the weeks to months to come. What I can tell you about is my Process for dealing with the constantly changing demands of the COVID pandemic and the recovery process which we MUST pursue immediately. Our children, our businesses, and we the people of Tuscaloosa ourselves can’t wait any longer.
My COVID Process, like my approach to our city’s safety and security and growing our city, begins with collaboration (and not edicts and mandates) by gathering our city and community leaders, local medical experts, members of the business community, other stakeholders and having open, transparent meetings to listen to the problems and needs of our city. Then and only then will I work to create solutions to those problems and needs that try to balance safety with all other factors.
Some things we must immediately address are:
Establishing a COVID Response/Medical Advisory Team with representation from DCH, Maude Whatley, Private Physicians, Business Owners and Vested Stakeholders from the community
Reopening schools, using the most recent CDC guidelines to inform us
Reexamining business restrictions to see if they are appropriate to our current situation
Continuing to protect our most vulnerable, especially residents of long-term care facilities by giving them the city’s full support for their protection efforts
Supporting vaccination efforts as much as we can, especially in our medically underserved population
Continuing to practice social distancing, masking, and sanitizing, but reopen City Hall immediately
With 21 schools serving over 11,000 children, our Tuscaloosa City Schools are charged with an incredible duty: educating our children. As Mayor, I will do everything I can to see that our schools have as much, and as much of the right kind, of support that the City of Tuscaloosa can give them.
On February 12th, the CDC released new guidelines for reopening schools, with four levels of “zones” based on levels of community transmission of the virus for different types of education: fully in-person, mixed (or hybrid) in-person and virtual, reduced attendance, and virtual-only.
The guidelines suggest that:
In-person teaching should be a priority over sports or other extracurricular activities
Districts should make in-person instruction a priority for all students, of special concern is the lower-income students or populations with disabilities, especially those districts where the numbers of these students are high
Students at risk for severe illness can choose to opt-out of in-person instruction
Teachers should be a priority to receive the vaccine, but it should not be mandatory for reopening
I will work with Superintendent Dr. Mike Daria, the School Board, administrators and principals, teachers, parents, and other invested people from the community to develop and support plans to reopen our schools as safely and as quickly as possible.
“With our kid’s futures at stake, how can we do any less than our very best?”--Martin Houston
Reexamining Business Restrictions
Over the past several months we’ve seen what works, and what doesn’t work to slow the spread of the pandemic. In many cases, this has been a painful process, as any businessman can tell you. What may have been reasonable months ago is probably less so now, and we must have a process in place to let local businesspeople, City Hall and local medical experts adjust, adapt and apply our Tuscaloosa guidelines for businesses fairly and evenly across the board.
To give just one example, it’s generally accepted that outdoor dining has a very low risk of transmitting the virus. We should make this our general city policy, then let businesses set their own stricter policies if they so desire.
As Mayor, I will work to build consensus before setting policy, not merely make pronouncements from the Mayor’s office without seeking input from those who will be most affected by those policies. I will also aggressively support both our current businesses and new businesses, as part of my overall vision to grow our local business community.
Protecting our most vulnerable populations
Our elder citizens, especially those in long-term care facilities, have already borne a high cost from the pandemic. While only a small percent of the population, they have had a significant number of deaths from COVID, and even with the vaccine, we can expect that this could continue. The virus is absolutely deadly to them, and we must take every precaution to protect them.
As Mayor, I will be vigilant in providing full City support to our nursing homes and other care facilities, not only to assist them with distributing vaccines but also with other medical and safety needs (First Responders, coordination with medical personnel and facilities, enforcement of safety and security precautions).
Expanding Maude Whatley’s Role in the Fight Against COVID
We are currently in the early stages of a nationwide vaccination program, and despite the usual bumps in the road, we have made moderate progress up to this point. One particular concern to me is the current racial discrepancy in vaccination rates, with 55% of Whites but only 11% of Blacks being vaccinated (as of this writing). We must make special efforts to address any concerns in the African-American community and then move expeditiously to get all who would be vaccinated, because we all share the same city.
I want to expand Maude Whatley Services, both with direct city support and by helping Whatley Health Services seek additional funding from state, federal, and private sources. Maude Whatley’s vision remains a strong beacon that guides us, and I want to honor her legacy by supporting the institution and purpose that was so dear to her.
As Mayor, I will have a Medical Advisory Team that includes leaders from Whatley, DCH, and the Tuscaloosa County Medical Society to help us create and expand not only mass vaccination programs but also to emphasize individual outreach to our underserved communities. We can also expect the need to bring in pastors, businessmen, and other leaders from the African-American community to help us help those who are most in need. Only by working with the entire community can we hope to successfully vaccinate everyone.
“If we can use our vaccine program to bring more people to the systems where they can receive the care they need, then that’s one silver lining we should find in this pandemic cloud.”--Martin Houston
Reopen City Hall immediately
City Hall is the people’s property, and they have a right to access it safely and securely when they are doing business with the city. With proper screening, social distancing, masking and sanitizing stations throughout the building, there is no reason why City Hall can not be reopened to the citizenry within days, if not immediately. I will make this a priority as Mayor beginning the day after Election Day.
Above all, what we do about COVID going forward must involve input from our medical experts, our business and community leaders, our City Hall leadership, and the People of Tuscaloosa. We must work together to set our path forward in a clear, transparent way, and we can only do this by building census across our communities. As your Mayor, I will lead by bringing these people together to see that everyone who wants one has a seat at the table and that every voice is heard.
We WILL recover from COVID, and we WILL be better and stronger for it!