The Bama Covid Experience 2021

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In May, 2020 a FranklinStoveBlog post “A Bama Covid Experience” dealt with how the University of Alabama would reopen in August, 2020.

A national public heath emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic had been declared in February 2020.

In March University of Alabama President Dr. Stuart R. Bell announced that the University had a Spring semester completion plan, which included no further person-to-person classroom instruction. Students were told not to return to the campus after Spring Break. The plan stated that:

Residence halls and Greek residential houses are closed. Recreation facilities are also closed. Dining halls, food courts, libraries and other services will not be readily available.

In order to provide for further social distancing, a staggered plan to retrieve your belongings from the residence halls and Greek houses is being developed and will be communicated at a later date. Students are not authorized to return to campus outside of this plan and any who show up without authorization will not be accommodated.

After the Spring semester had ended, there were unsubstantiated rumors of Covid parties that students participated in during the summer of 2020. There had been, as a consequence, a good deal of uncertainty about what it would be like when thousands of students returned to campus.

In the Fall of 2020, “every student and employee was required to be tested for COVID-19 and receive a negative result before returning to campus for the fall semester or participating in any campus activity.” Less than 1% had positive results out of the 25,000 University of Alabama students who had been tested as of August 16th. Many T-Town residents were relieved by such low figures.

But after classes resumed on August 19th, there was an an explosion of Coronavirus cases. CNN reported that “more than 1,000 students at the University of Alabama have tested positive for Covid-19 since classes resumed on the Tuscaloosa campus less than two weeks ago.”

On August 24th, there had been a two week closure of bars in Tuscaloosa. Montgomery Advertiser‘s Melissa Brown reported, that in less than 72 hours after school had resumed classes, the University’s President Stuart Bell announced that he was “deeply disappointed” in student behavior. Bell issued new campus directives that restricted student behavior.

Football games were played in Bryant Denny Stadium with a reduced seating capacity along with mask requirements. Other sports events were held under similar conditions.

A proposed Kappa Delta Farm Party was cancelled in November 2020, due to concerns about Covid-19.

The University conducted a Sentinel Testing program which involved the random sampling of all asymptomatic students, faculty and staff. (Other schools frequently tested all students on a mandatory basis.) A March 2021 article by Meghan Schiano in the University’s student newspaper The Crimson White reported that there had been “a record low number of COVID-19 cases among employees […] and another week of low student cases.”

An article in the Crimson White by Javon Williams provided information on the upcoming 2021 Fall Semester at the University. He reported that students returning to the campus would not be tested. There would be person to person instruction, without classroom occupancy limits. No mask requirements were planned for the Fall. The football stadium would be full. Williams wrote:

A transition to remote learning after last year’s spring break marked the beginning of more than a year of lasting impact. Now, as the statewide mask mandate has been lifted and vaccines become available for students, faculty and staff, the University is adapting its safety policies.

KMIZ/ABC17‘s Meghan Drakas was among the many who have reported that some colleges may require that students be vaccinated. She said, “Colleges and universities across the county have started to announce coronavirus vaccine mandates for students attending classes.”

Kaiser Health News reported:

The number of colleges and universities that will require students be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 is suddenly escalating. In just the last few days, Duke University, Brown, Northeastern University, the University of Notre Dame, Syracuse University and Ithaca College all announced that students returning to campus in the fall must be fully vaccinated before the first day of class.

Every year, colleges across the country require students to get vaccinations for diseases such as Measles and Tetanus. Now, one year into the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines against the virus are becoming available for college-age students.

In April, 2021, only 15% of the residents of Tuscaloosa County were reported by USAToday to have been fully vaccinated. Herd immunity was thought to achievable only when 75-80% of the population had been vaccinated. (UAB‘s Dr. Suzanne Judd‘s idea of achieving herd immunity in May, 2021, was considered to be wildly optimistic. But more recently she elaborated on her position. See comments below.) T-Town has a population of over 100,000. There are approximately 30,000 university students living in the community. Even in the unlikely scenario that 75-80% percent of its permanent residents are vaccinated, there will potentially be tens of thousands of student residents from throughout the country and world who are not vaccinated.

There was a legitimate concern about public safety in T-Town, with thousands of unvaccinated University students no longer wearing masks and gatherings such as the Farm Party becoming commonplace. Many people in T-Town were apprehensive about just what the new iteration of Bama Covid experience would be like.

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No Time Like The Right Time?

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Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walt Maddox had been granted executive powers that gave him the authority to regulate bars and restaurants in 2020, as Jason Morton reported in the Tuscaloosa News. The orders were justified because of a growing surge in coronavirus cases in the community. On August 24, 2020, a fourteen day closure of bars was even mandated by the city.

Had an April 5, 2021, Early Release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) been available, it might have helped Maddox make his case in 2020. The report “Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with a Local Bar Opening Event” concerned a case study of a bar that had opened in Illinois. The report said:

Forty-six cases of COVID-19 were linked to an indoor bar opening event that occurred during February 2021 in a rural Illinois county. Event patrons were linked to secondary cases among household, long-term care facility, and school contacts, resulting in one hospitalization and one school closure affecting 650 students.

Bars can play a role in community spread of COVID-19 because of limited mask use while eating or drinking and lack of consistent physical distancing. These findings show that SARS-CoV-transmission originating in a business such as a bar not only affects the patrons and employees of the bar but can also affect an entire community. As community businesses begin to reopen, considering additional prevention measures is important, such as limiting building occupancy levels and improving ventilation, especially in locations where consistent and correct mask wearing and physical distancing are difficult to enforce. Businesses can work with local health officials to promote behaviors and maintain environments that reduce the risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission and develop strategies for reopening safely to prevent outbreaks in the community, such as modifying layouts and operating procedures.

Bars have certainly played an important role in Tuscaloosa’s “experience economy.” After bars had been closed for fourteen days, the city instituted a bar bailout. As reported by by CBSNews19‘s Tim Reid, “the City Council passed a resolution to give $400,000 to 29 bar owners.” Keeping bars open was a high priority for the city.

Because the city was unable to enforce social distancing in bars, it established occupancy limits. The inability of the city to enforce social distancing and mask wearing created incidents such as the one at Rhythm & Brews, where a post on social media by the band Velcro Pygmies exposed the lack of enforcement.

In the Fall, there may be a reopening of Bryant-Denny Stadium with full capacity crowds. University of Alabama football games have traditionally drawn over 100,000 fans to T-Town and filled its hotels, bars and restaurants. The Crimson Tide football season has been a veritable gold mine for the economy of Tuscaloosa.

An April article in the Conversation about the transmission of the Coronavirus at NFL events by Alex R. Piquero and Justin Kurland said that “where teams had 20,000 fans or more at games, there were more than twice as many COVID-19 cases in the three weeks after games compared to counties with other teams. The case rate per 100,000 residents was also twice as high.” The article said that the decisions about limits on stadium capacity had been made with “minimal data about the heightened risk that players and fans face of getting COVID-19 at stadiums or arenas and spreading it in the community.”

Jason Morton‘s April, 6, 2021, article in the Tuscaloosa News “Mayor Walt Maddox: Time Is Right To Rescind COVID_19 Executive Powers” said that the “Tuscaloosa City Council is expected to vote to rescind the executive powers granted to Mayor Walt Maddox to speed the response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The first death of a University of Alabama student that was related to Covid-19 had just recently shocked T-Town. Leah Goggins reported on the death of super fan Cameron Luke Ratliffin in the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White: “The University of Alabama, which topped charts for campus infections in the fall, has not publicly reported any COVID-19-related deaths among students.”

CNN‘s Christina Maxouris wrote about a highly contagious and deadly Covid variant where “the people most affected now are the younger individuals.” Maxouris reported that Dr. Leana Wen had said, “We’re seeing in places like Michigan that the people who are now getting hospitalized by large numbers are people in their 30s and 40s. And now we’re even seeing children getting infected in larger numbers, too.” She wrote that: “In Florida’s Orange County, officials reported late last month a rise in Covid-19 cases in the 18-25 age group.”

Other communities were experiencing dramatic spikes in Covid cases, many of which had been attributed to large gatherings of college students who were not observing Covid safety precautions, as reported by InsideHigherEd.com. Hopefully Mayor Maddox’s decision to end the city’s extraordinary powers to cope with the pandemic in April was made at the right time for T-Town.

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Herd Immunity in T-Town by May?

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In March, 2021, many people in T-Town had been emboldened to think that the safety precautions that were put into place because of the Covid-19 pandemic were no longer necessary.

Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivy has urged Alabamians to continue to use masks after the state’s mask order expired on April 9th, as AP News reported. 76 year-old Ivy said that she would continue to wear a mask and urged others to as well.

The first concert of 2021 at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater was scheduled to occur in June. As reported by Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News, the Jon Pardi show is “being listed as socially distanced, with reduced capacity, and masking required.”

Alabama‘s A-Day Spring Football Game, according to BamaOnLine‘s Charlie Potter was likely occur with seating limited to a “20-25 percent range.” Whether masks would be required had not been announced at the time of the event’s scheduling.

A story ran in the Tuscaloosa News by Mark Hughes Cobb about the return of the Druid City Arts Festival to the city’s Government Plaza on May 14th, 2021. As many as 13,000 people have attended the festival in the past. Whether there would be social distancing and mask wearing during the outdoor event was not predictable. Many University of Alabama students have routinely not worn masks or socially distanced at bars. Although the University had its final classes of the semester in April, students were still likely to participate in the event. It took place in the Entertainment District, where the open carrying of alcoholic beverages was permitted.

Contributing to the new laissez-faire attitude about Covid-19 that many members of the public seemed to have was the widely published opinion of the nutritional epidemiologist Suzanne Judd in the University of Alabama Birmingham‘s (UAB) Department of Biostatistics.

Judd was quoted in the the UAB News by Holly Gainer as having said:

“We have great data to know how many people tested positive and how many people have been vaccinated. From there, we can estimate how many people have immunity but never received a vaccine and never had a positive test based on studies that have tested immunity in blood. We are able to put these numbers together and come up with the estimate of when we will reach herd immunity, which is May of this year.”

According to the New York Times only about 13% of Alabama residents had been fully vaccinated by March 23, 2021.

Alabama is one of the reddest of red states. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed concern about the “hesitancy reported among supporters of former President Trump” to be vaccinated “due to ‘a natural resistance to government,'” according to The Hill‘s Joseph Choi. There is a high likelihood of a similar reticence among citizens of Alabama to be vaccinated.

In a high poverty state such as Alabama there are barriers other than political ideology to vaccination. WBRC6 reported that the State National Guard had been administering vaccinations in West Alabama. Alabama’s poverty rate has fluctuated from as high as 19% to 15% of its population.

Some epidemiologists are not optimistic about herd immunity ever being established. Writing in the prestigious journal Nature, Christie Aschwanden reported that “the theoretical threshold for vanquishing COVID-19 looks to be out of reach.”

Aschwanden‘s article featured the opinion of several notable epidemiologists. She wrote:

As COVID-19 vaccination rates pick up around the world, people have reasonably begun to ask: how much longer will this pandemic last? It’s an issue surrounded with uncertainties. But the once-popular idea that enough people will eventually gain immunity to SARS-CoV-2 to block most transmission — a ‘herd-immunity threshold’ — is starting to look unlikely.

That threshold is generally achievable only with high vaccination rates, and many scientists had thought that once people started being immunized en masse, herd immunity would permit society to return to normal. Most estimates had placed the threshold at 60–70% of the population gaining immunity, either through vaccinations or past exposure to the virus. But as the pandemic enters its second year, the thinking has begun to shift. In February, independent data scientist Youyang Gu changed the name of his popular COVID-19 forecasting model from ‘Path to Herd Immunity’ to ‘Path to Normality’. He said that reaching a herd-immunity threshold was looking unlikely because of factors such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the delayed arrival of vaccinations for children.

Aschwanden reported that Shweta Bansal, a mathematical biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. had said vaccine effectiveness for halting transmission needs to be “pretty darn high” for herd immunity to matter.

“No community is an island, and the landscape of immunity that surrounds a community really matters,” she says. COVID-19 has occurred in clusters across the United States as a result of people’s behavior or local policies. Previous vaccination efforts suggest that uptake will tend to cluster geographically, too, Bansal adds. Localized resistance to the measles vaccination, for example, has resulted in small pockets of disease resurgence. “Geographic clustering is going to make the path to herd immunity a lot less of a straight line, and essentially means we’ll be playing a game of whack-a-mole with COVID outbreaks.” Even for a country with high vaccination rates, such as Israel, if surrounding countries haven’t done the same and populations are able to mix, the potential for new outbreaks remains.

Aschwanden wrote that “given what’s known about other coronaviruses and the preliminary evidence for SARS-CoV-2, it seems that infection-associated immunity wanes over time, so that needs to be factored in to calculations. Bansal said, “We’re still lacking conclusive data on waning immunity, but we do know it’s not zero and not 100.”

Limiting social contact and continuing protective behaviors such as masking will still be important. She wrote that it will be “hard to stop people reverting to pre-pandemic behavior. Texas and some other US state governments are already lifting mask mandates.”

Who knows? Perhaps Suzanne Judd‘s prediction about Alabama will be accurate. Some people have attributed the lack of a dramatic peak in infections after an largely unmasked crowd of 5,000 amassed to celebrate the University of Alabama football team’s National Championship to “herd immunity.” By May perhaps the 13% figure for people in Alabama who were vaccinated in March could well have dramatically increased. Perhaps T-Town will be someday considered as an anomaly or even model for the rest of the world?

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St. Paddy’s & T-Town in the time of Covid

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With the occupancy restrictions removed for bars in T-Town in March, 2021, local establishments were probably anticipating making a killing on St. Paddy’s Day. Excessive drinking on the anniversary of St. Patrick‘s death (March 17th) had become a blasphemous tradition. The Christian forty day observation of Lent, where alcohol use was prohibited, was traditionally interrupted to celebrate the Saint’s death. Probably most of the patrons who would be drinking green beer in T-Town were not observing Lent or celebrating a Catholic saint’s death. They were there for the specials.

The Patch‘s Ryan Phillips provided a list of T-Town bars that were offering St. Paddy’s Day specials. Included in the array of special drinks that were being offered were Irish Car Bombs. It is doubtful that many patrons ordering the drink named for an Irish Republican Army weapon would be aware of just how insulting their choice of beverage might be to many Irishmen.

Writing for the Daily Nexus, Scott Dicke recalled an episode in an Irish Pub:

While I was abroad my American roommate tried to order an Irish Car Bomb at the bar. The bartender just stared at him and told him they don’t sell them. My roommate was confused, until I reminded him what a car bomb means to Irish people. Car bombs in Ireland are no fun thing.

According to Wikipedia: “Increasingly, bartenders prefer the title ‘Irish Slammer’, ‘Irish Bomb Shot’, Car Crash,’ or simply the ‘Irish Bomb’ to avoid offending patrons.”

“Snake” can be slang for a person who acts in a deceitful, underhanded, or backstabbing way. But St. Patrick was reputed to have driven the reptile kind of snake from Ireland. (However National Geographic‘s James Owen has written about the fact that Ireland may have just been too cold to become a snake habitat.) The long lines that have often snaked outside of bars in T-Town may have been diminished on St. Paddy’s Day in 2021 by potentially severe weather.

The Tuscaloosa News warned about the possibility of “strong, long-track tornadoes, damaging winds up to 80 miles per hour and golf-ball-size hail” on St. Paddy’s Day. The city of Tuscaloosa opened up five storm shelters in preparation for threatening weather conditions.

It was likely that many dedicated bar-hoppers would only seek shelter from the storm in their favorite watering holes.

The danger from severe weather might well be less than that of the possibility of increased Coronavirus infections. USAToday‘s Linda Hasco wrote about the concerns over maskless Spring Break crowds causing a spike in infections, in the light of the new deadly variants that were being found in the US.

The Austin American-Stateman‘s Laura Morales reported that a “highly transmissible coronavirus strain first detected in California has been identified on the University of Texas campus.” Spring Break had not been cancelled at University of Texas. School officials responded with an email that said:

To help prevent exporting or importing variants if traveling for spring break, and to prevent a surge in cases after spring break, it is critical that members of our community strictly follow public health measures. 

A “Saint Fratty’s Day” party that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students held was reported by CalCoast News, where few participants were wearing masks. In T-Town, masks are frequently worn –on the arms– of people in bars.

Of course T-Town may have continued to dodge the bullet. Its crowd of 5,000 celebrants on January 12, 2021, only produced a small spike in Covid-19 infections, according to Bloomberg‘s Jonathan Levin. Other such events have had far worse consequences.

Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, doubtlessly wouldn’t endorse the commercialization of his death in T-Town. And the idea that a celebration in his name might spread a deadly disease is a sin, possibly beyond any which might be associated with Sinn Fein‘s car bombs.

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Alcohol & Denial in the time of Covid-19

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In spite of the pandemic’s restrictions on “normal” college life, a recent hazing incident at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) shows that perhaps things haven’t changed that much. Admittedly there are certainly not as many reported cases of hazing these days.

A BGSU student was being kept on life support “following an alleged hazing incident involving alcohol” until his organs could be harvested, as The Hill‘s Celine Castronuovo reported. The alleged hazing took place at the school’s Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) fraternity house.

WTOL-11‘s Emma Henderson interviewed a BGSU student who recounted how his roommate was violently sick after returning from a PIKE pledge party

“We have to drink a handle of any alcohol that our big gives us. We have to finish the whole thing in the time we’re there before we leave. I’ve never seen my roommate more drunk in his entire life, he immediately went to the bathroom and was throwing up in the toilet for just 15 minutes to an hour and making himself vomit.”

“It’s crazy to me that they can allow this deathly and neglectful drinking to go on. I think it’s incredible to me that they try to hide themselves behind this organization.”

The use of alcohol by students could have a disastrous impact on any attempts to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

KDRV-12 warned that this year’s Spring Break could be a “perfect storm” for spreading the COVID-19 virus. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine commented on the potential for a superspreader event at beaches that were popular with students.

You’ve got the B.1.1.7 variant accelerating in Florida. You’ve got all these 20-year-old kids. None of them are going to have masks. They’re all going to be drinking. They’re having pretty close, intimate contact. And then, after that’s all done, they’re going to go back to their home states and spread the B.1.1.7 variant.’

Attempts to physically distance and wear masks typically go out the window at parties where alcohol is involved.

It’s not just that drinking makes people take off their masks (if they’re wearing one at all). Alcohol can cause people to get closer to one another than usual, Hotez said.

That’s especially dangerous this spring break, when revelers at popular hot spots may not just be exposed to students from across the country — they could also be exposed to variants or outbreaks from those parts of the country as well.

So this is not the time to have a superspreader event for that UK variant, which is what spring break in Florida would look like,’ Hotez said.

‘This is not the time to be sending a bunch of 20-year-olds to Florida, then sending them back, disseminating it across the country.’

Susannah Bryan, who writes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, reported on problems during the Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She spoke with Davenport University‘s 21-year-old Jack Gumeinny, who said, “Florida hasn’t skipped a beat.” She wrote:

Gumeinny, a junior at Davenport University, shrugged at the lack of social distancing.

“We’re not in the at-risk group,” he said.

Gumeinny said he and his buddies planned to head to a strip club in between bar hopping. On Thursday, they partied at Café Ibiza on A1A, surrounded by a crowd of maskless coeds dancing to the loudest music on the block.

Bryan reported that Broward Mayor Steve Geller was very upset about the lack of code enforcement.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Geller said. “I’m not opposed to college kids having fun — just not in the middle of a pandemic. We will take action” if Fort Lauderdale doesn’t.

But Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis insisted that most people were obeying the rules. He was quoted as having said, “I think people should spend more time focusing than trying to play gotcha with other people visiting our community.”

Many politicians, who favor reopening their communities, have been quick to say that deaths from and the number of cases of COVID-19 have been declining. In Axios, Bryan Walsh wrote that “Daily COVID-19 tests in the U.S. have declined by more than a quarter since mid-January.” But he pointed out that the pandemic is “far from finished.” He explained that to some extent positive cases weren’t being looked at because of vaccinations. Instead the emphasis was on “verifying constantly that those who were vaccinated or were negative before are still negative,” according to Tony Lemmo, the CEO of the diagnostics equipment company BioDot.

The fact that 43,000 people in Texas had died due to COVID-19 apparently did not make a lot of difference to its Governor Greg Abbott, who relaxed public safety orders in the Lone Star state. The Texas Tribune‘s Shannon Najmabadi spoke with Delia Ramos whose husband had died due to the Coronavirus. Ramos disagreed with Abbott’s lifting of the mask order. Najmabadi reported on Ramos‘ concerns:

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks.” It feels like people that think it’s “inconvenient to wear a mask” override all the “people that have been lost” to the virus, as well as doctors and nurses working long hours and teachers scared to go to work for fear of being exposed.”

Orange Beach, Alabama, did not want to become a “MTV destination.” Al.com‘s John Sharp reported:

Gulf Shores has banned alcohol on its beaches for the past six years during Spring Break. Now Orange Beach is outright closing a beach during the break.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the beach’s spring closures could become a springtime tradition in order to create a “sanctuary city for families” and to “eliminate an MTV destination.”

“We’ve eliminated that area so we don’t have all of these spring breakers sowing mischief,” said Kennon.

Kennon said the decision to close the beach “is absolutely about Spring Break” and less about the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of alcohol during a pandemic, particularly by young people many of whom tend to binge drink, inevitably leads to the spread of COVID-19.

Alabama‘s Governor Ivy extended the state’s mask order to April 9. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been highly critical of states which have lifted mask wearing orders. Carlie Porterfield in Forbes wrote that Fauci has said that such “premature” actions during a coronavirus pandemic will likely lead to another surge of new coronavirus cases.

If mask wearing in T-Town diminishes, there may a reversal of any progress in combating the virus. The state has also increased the number of people who may occupy tables in bars and restaurants. Both lack of mask wearing and inadequate social distancing are a formula for disaster.

The University of Alabama‘s classes end on April 23 but exams will be conducted until the 30th.

If there is any outbreak of Coronavirus in April on campus due to the state’s decision to no longer maintain a mask order, it may well not be fully reported. Asymptomatic students may return to their hometowns, bearing an unwanted house guest.

When the University convenes in the Fall, are there plans to revert to “normal” conditions on campus? Will the same pre-entry testing that occurred last year be required when there were over 2,000 cases reported–at the time more than more than the total cases in 35 states?

The idea that life will revert to “normal” in T-Town anytime soon may well be only a pipe dream, as fervently as it is wished for by many people.

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Getting Back To Normal?

President Donald J Trump in April of 2020, during a covid task force address in the early days of the nation’s response to the pandemic, mentioned Bryant Denny Stadium. In AL.com‘s Leada Gore‘s article “Alabama football mentioned during Trump coronavirus update: ‘We want 110,000 people there’, he said” Trump was quoted:

“Our normal is if you have 100,00 people in an Alabama football game or 110,000 to be specific,” Trump said. “Normal” is not going to be a game where you have 50,000. We want 110,000 people there. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be a game where we have 50,000” people.

President Trump no longer occupies the White House. But he must be overjoyed that the University of Alabama‘s Athletic Director Greg Byrne has said that he expects a full-capacity crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the fall. Sports Illustrated reported that Bryne Tweeted about the stadium capacity after the University of Alabama had revealed its plans to resume in-person class “without restrictions” in the fall 2021 semester.

The Yellowhammer News reported in May, 2020, that Alabama System Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John IV had been part of “an exclusive national group for a discussion with Vice President Mike Pence and other key Trump administration officials on how to best get Americans safely back to school in the fall.” The University of Alabama in 2020 took major steps in response to Covid-19 that altered campus life. The new normal in 2021 has reset the game.

Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News wrote that “University of Alabama students will return to traditional in-classroom instruction for fall 2021, following models that predict COVID-19 herd immunity will be achieved by late spring or early summer.”

Cobb reported that Charlie Taylor, director of operations for the UA System Health and Safety Task Force, said that the decision to resume in-person classes was based on information that the University Of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) had put forward. Taylor said, “UAB projects we hit herd immunity — which means 72 percent of the population — by end of May or early summer.”

UAB epidemiologist Dr. Suzanne Judd was among the first who have said that herd immunity was imminent. The Gadsden TimesDonna Thornton wrote that Dr. Judd said that “more people have antibodies for COVID-19 than tested positive for the virus.” She claimed that, along with those who had been vaccinated, the numbers of those infected already and immune might constitute herd immunity.

Dr Judd also said that public health precautions of mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing should continue. She also warned that it is not known whether people who are vaccinated still can transmit the virus if exposed.

Other epidemiologists have different ideas about herd immunity. Christelle Ilboudo, MD, infectious disease expert at MU Health Care, doubts that infection will provide long-term protection from the virus. She and other epidemiologists think that “herd immunity” will not be achieved until 80-90% of the population have COVID-19 immunity. “We have not achieved any herd immunity through a natural disease process to most major infectious diseases that affect the population to this scale. All of the major infections I know of have required vaccination.”

CNN‘s Deidre McPhillips wrote a lengthy article about the prospects of the United States achieving herd immunity. There were varying projections. One thing that can be certain is that there is no agreement among the experts.

Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communications lead at the COVID Tracking Project, said. “Herd immunity can only be discussed in the context of mass vaccination. I’m on the more conservative side and very hesitant to claim that natural immunity is causing a meaningful difference in these numbers. We really need to be vaccinating at least 70% of the population. That seems potentially possible by the end of the year if there are no significant bottlenecks in production or delivery.”

In Phillips’ article Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation commented on the threat of Covid-19 variants, “There isn’t a very clear route to herd immunity if those variants spread, and it’s a very tricky business trying to predict at what pace they’ll spread.”

The New York Time‘s Anemona Hartocollis wrote about how schools have been impacted by the pandemic:

Colleges and universities across the country are pledging to reopen more fully in the fall, with some administrators worried that students won’t return to campus if normality, or some semblance of it, isn’t restored by September.

Schools from large state institutions to small private ones have announced they are laying plans to bring students back to dormitories, deploy professors to teach most (if not all) classes in person and restart extracurricular activities, in stark contrast to the past academic year of largely virtual courses and limited social contact. The announcements of these changes coincide with the sending of acceptance letters to the class of 2025.

Some schools have taken a financial hit because of deferred admissions or lost room-and-board fees.

More than 120,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to American colleges and universities since Jan. 1, and more than 530,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times survey. The Times has identified more than 100 deaths, but the vast majority involved employees, not students.

In his article in The Tuscaloosa News, Cobb quoted the University of Alabama‘s Charlie Taylor: “Enrollment (numbers were) not a consideration. This decision was made based on what is safe, and in the best interest of our students.”

As the UAB‘s Dr. Judd has cautioned, mask wearing and social distancing will be required for the foreseeable future. How social distancing will be accomplished in crowded classrooms or in a packed stadium should be a concern. There are also different ideas about when “herd immunity” will come into play.

Certainly Donald J Trump‘s idea of normal may be realized when football games begin again in Bryant Denny Stadium. But will that kind of normal be what the doctor ordered for T-Town?

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Ohio State’s #1!

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Ohio State University is outpacing many states in testing its both on-campus and off-campus students. The school has tested 200,000 students since it started processing tests on campus on October, 2020.

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Sheridan Hendrix wrote that “COVID-19 tests became mandatory for students living in dorms. Testing later increased to include students living off-campus and frontline employees.”

Simone Jasper in the Miami Herald reported that the plunge in Covid cases nationwide could be attributed in part to the fact that “the seven-day average of new tests was trending downward in recent days.” Jasper wrote:

With the focus shifting to the COVID-19 vaccination effort, Eleanor Murray, a Boston University School of Public Health expert, pointed out some cases may simply be going unnoticed. Murray said she worried it could be getting more difficult to be tested as focus shifts to vaccination efforts.

The Nashville Tennessean‘s Brett Kelman described how the partying which had occurred all during the pandemic throughout the South culminated in T-Town:

On Jan. 11, as many southern states were grappling with the most infections they’d ever seen, the Alabama Crimson Tide crushed the Ohio State Buckeyes in the last game of a bizarre and incomplete season of college football.

When final whistle blew, thousands of Alabama college students took to the streets of Tuscaloosa to celebrate amid the deadliest year of their lives. The crowd, mostly unmasked, packed shoulder-to-shoulder on a quarter-mile street called The Strip. The spread of the virus was far smaller than the Mardi Gras carnival that kicked off coronavirus 11 months prior, but parallels in behavior were obvious. 

They chugged beers. They chanted cheers. They spread joy. And the second year of coronavirus in the American South began the same as the first – with a party.

Although Alabama‘s Crimson Tide beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the football championship game, it appears that Ohio State University is winning in terms of testing on campus. At the University of Alabama the testing of off-campus students, which comprise seventy-five percent of its student body, is voluntary. The school has attempted to increase its sentinel testing (random sampling of asymptomatic individuals), as Kelly Hutchinson in the campus newspaper The Crimson White reported, by “offering incentives like gift cards and BamaCash” to off-campus students who are not required to be tested.

UAB epidemiologist Dr. Suzanne Judd, as reported by Donna Thornton, has said that “herd immunity” might explain the recently decreasing numbers in Covid cases in Alabama. She speculated that more people were infected early in the pandemic than have tested positive. She said that studies indicate that more people have antibodies for COVID-19 than those who tested positive for the virus. She said that, combined with vaccinations, those earlier infections might promote a “herd immunity.” Judd‘s idea about herd immunity may differ from other experts in the field.

Christelle Ilboudo, MD, infectious disease expert at MU Health Care, doubts that infection will provide long-term protection from the virus. She and other epidemiologists think that “herd immunity” will not be achieved until 80-90% of the population have COVID-19 immunity. “We have not achieved any herd immunity through a natural disease process to most major infectious diseases that affect the population to this scale. All of the major infections I know of have required vaccination.”

Newspaper headlines about declining cases may result in people exercising less caution when in public. 

An article in the Tuscaloosa News by Becky Hopf about a proposed Tuscaloosa Half Marathon for March reported that runners would be maskless. She wrote:

Since 2019, FRESHJUNKIE Racing has administered the races, and, in the time of COVID, race director Jonathan Dziuba assures the event will execute safety precautions.

The main points of the plan that concern runners is the assigned wave start times based on the runners’ anticipated finish time, the requirement to wear a mask at all times when not actually running [emphasis mine] on the race course and the lack of a big post-race party atmosphere this year. The focus is on the run and giving people an opportunity to compete in one.

Wearing a mask while running is required in any safe event. In the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds has written about Covid issues and running. “If you pass other runners, try to swing at least 6 feet wide, and preferably 15 feet or more, because respiratory particles are unlikely to float that far, he said. And avoid drafting behind other racers; their expired air congregates in the shoulder-wide slipstream behind them.” 

She wrote that gaiters were often used and that runners must wear them “or another facial covering at the start and whenever they pass other runners en route.” Bert Blocken, a professor of civil engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and KU Leuven in Belgium (who studies airflow, including during cycling and running events), said that runners should “carry a handkerchief and keep their mucus and spittle contained,”  In such races, said. He added that “it is well known that saliva and snot flies around.”

Reynolds explained, “Since those fluids could contain viral particles if the racer releasing them is infected, runners should not spit or blow their noses into the air, he said, and steer clear of any racers who do not comply.”

A Runner’s World article by Jordan Smith gave guidelines for runners. Heather Milton, M.S., exercise physiologist supervisor at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, was reported as having said “even when you’re wearing a mask, it’s important to also keep a big distance between yourself and others—both factors are important when it comes to prevention of infection. Wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing.” She warned that “universal masking would help prevent the spread of the virus, but that is likely not realistic that all runners will adhere to that during the length of a race.”


The perception that might be created by this marathon that things are getting back to normal in T-Town, by holding a race in March where runners wear no masks, may have the same effect as the optimistic newspaper pandemic headlines. In a town where there was a notorious celebration on The Strip, that would be the last thing that the doctor would order.


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Crowds & Covid in the Street

Photo by Marcin Dampc on Pexels.com

A color run provides a good illustration of people being in a crowd during a pandemic. Just envisage the paint as viral droplets.

But people participating in a color run are usually moving. It’s a race. The crowd that gathered on The Strip to celebrate the University of Alabama football team’s national championship on January 11th, 2021, was largely stationary. After all people were packed together like sardines. They were, of course, eventually able to move out of the way of the squad cars that dispersed them.

There have been newspaper reports that the event on The Strip, which largely involved four or five thousand students who poured out of bars and came from nearby student housing, did not lead to a significant spike in Covid-19 cases. That’s remarkable. Events throughout the nation that have involved far fewer people, such as people going to church, wedding receptions, White House events and parties, have been super-spreaders.

A Facebook page post, which might well have been tongue and cheek, explained the lack of contagion among students. It said that students had developed a “herd immunity.” “Between their parties and bars and surging numbers from earlier in the pandemic they’ve all had it already.” Of course, if that unlikely scenario were actually the case, they could never ever see their parents, grandparents and outside friends, etc. without potentially exposing them.

NOLA.com‘s Emily Woodruff‘s article about how New Orleans in 2020 became an early coronavirus hotspot quoted Jeremy Kamil, a professor of microbiology and immunology:

“If college students are crowding on Bourbon Street, a lot of those people won’t get seriously ill,” said Kamil. “But if they go home and visit grandma, or if they spread it to someone else who spreads it to someone else who works in a nursing home or is a prison employee, then all of a sudden you’re indirectly involved in a chain of events where now you, in some way, have participated in the death of 90 people.”

New Orleans, in preparation for the 2021 Mardi Gras took measures, such as shutting bars citywide and putting up street barriers. Jeff Adelson reported for NOLA.com that bars that flouted coronavirus rules were being shuttered in early February.

Another national football championship brought people into the streets. On January 7, 2021, in Tampa Bay and other cities Super Bowl celebrants duplicated what occurred on The Strip. USAToday‘s Josh Peter wrote:

Thousands of people took to the roads and the streets across this city Sunday night after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl 55. What many didn’t bring to the impromptu celebration was masks.

The festivities turned especially raucous outside the Tampa Convention Center downtown, where college-aged revelers cheered, guzzled alcohol and sometimes surrounded cars that were blaring music. 

There was little sign of masks.

“It’s been a long year with COVID,’’ said Kyle Bradshaw, 25, wearing a Tom Brady jersey. “People are ready to party.’’

According to AL.com‘s John Sharp there was a lot of apprehension in Mobile, Alabama over Mardi Gras activities. He wrote:

Mobile’s police chief said Monday he remains concerned about the “safety of our men and women” on Mardi Gras Day when the city moves forward with closing its downtown streets – allowing for potential crowds and with the potential of eight separate block parties occurring during the day.

Chief Lawrence Battiste said that “less than 25%” of his department is vaccinated from COVID-19, as most law enforcements have opted not to receive a shot since they had first offered them last month. That means most of the police patrolling the streets during Mardi Gras will be “exposed to the virus.”

As far as vaccinations were concerned a report by USAFacts indicated that younger people were far less likely to be vaccinated:

53% of adults “definitely” plan to get vaccinated or have already received full vaccination. Forty-five percent either said they were less than absolute that they would get vaccinated (responding “probably,” “probably not,” or definitely will not”) or reported that they’d already had their first shot and don’t plan to receive a second.

There are demographic differences between people seeking vaccinations and those who aren’t. Fifty-one percent of adults under 25 said they were uncertain or won’t get fully vaccinated, compared with 27% of the 65 and older population who said the same.

Mandatory testing for the Covid-19 virus was only required at the University of Alabama for on-campus students returning after its break. Any vaccination requirements may likewise be limited to students who live on-campus. And CNBC.com‘s Abigail Johnson Hess wrote that it would be difficult to keep unvaccinated students off-campus.

At the University of Massachusetts, as reported in Forbes by Michael T Nietzel, because of an increase in Covid-19 cases, the university’s campus risk level was placed at “High Risk” with a number of “significant new restrictions on classes and other campus activities for a two week period.” Neitzel wrote:

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy acknowledged that the steps “may seem like drastic measures.” But, he continued, “faced with the surge in cases we are experiencing in our campus community, we have no choice but to take these steps. By acting aggressively now, we are confident we can contain this surge and more quickly return to normal operations, including a resumption of in-person classes and organized student activities. Our extensive planning process anticipated the possibility of this occurrence, and we are prepared to take swift and decisive action to protect our community. Be assured that in all we do, the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff are of paramount concern.” 

Perhaps T-Town and the University of Alabama will continue to beat the odds and the large numbers of students who have not observed Covid-19 safety precautions when they are off-campus will not precipitate the kind of spike in cases that occurred in Massachusetts. In any event, people who are in the college age range will not likely require hospitalization. Many are asymptomatic and might not even be aware that they have been infected since there is no mandatory testing for students. However they can certainly spread the virus in the community.

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It’s 21 4 A Reason

There were Billboards in T-Town about students getting educated instead of addicted. The billboards weren’t to be found in areas close to the University of Alabama but they were all over town.

The organization Pride of Tuscaloosa that was responsible for the billboards is supported by the City of Tuscaloosa, the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, and Nicks Kids.

Pride of Tuscaloosa has posted a Tweet “Rethink Your Drink” with a chart that has facts that come from a World Health Organization infographic on alcohol and death.

The position of the National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism is that: “Underage drinking is a serious public health problem in the United States. Alcohol is the most widely used substance among America’s youth, and drinking by young people poses enormous health and safety risks.”

The crowds that poured out of bars on The Strip after Alabama’s football team won the national championship may well have created a super-spreader event. The University of Alabama published figures on student Covid cases. It has reported 450 since classes resumed on Jan. 13. The University said that there were record numbers of off-campus positive cases over the holiday break. In spite of the figures posted on its Dashboard, Vice President for Student Life Myron Pope has indicated that the University may bring back social events, as reported in The Crimson White by Kelby Hutchinson.

Of course, since there was no contract tracing of the students who participated, whether the rise in cases at the University was related to the congregation of thousands of students on The Strip would be pure speculation. However a satirical suggestion for a Tee-shirt alludes to the celebration.

A satirical Tee-shirt

Since one consequence of under-aged drinking is the impairment of judgment and risky behavior, some of the students who rushed onto the packed crowd on University Boulevard and were shouting at the top of their lungs while not wearing masks may have been inebriated. It would be highly likely that many of them were younger than 21 years of age. (The Tuscaloosa Police Department would have records of the ages of any who were arrested.) Most students have worn masks during the football games in Bryant-Denny Stadium and at basketball games at Coleman Coliseum. But not wearing masks while lining up at bars on The Strip has been commonplace.

The University of Alabama certainly has a strict policy on alcohol use:

Individuals under 21 years of age are not permitted to consume alcohol or be in possession of alcohol. Alcohol paraphernalia (which includes but is not limited to: empty beer cans or bottles, shot glasses, etc.) are prohibited and considered a violation of policy. Individuals over the age of 21 may consume alcohol in designated areas on campus in a safe and responsible manner.

Getting educated, not addicted, is even more important during the Coronavirus pandemic. The risky behavior that occurred on The Strip after the national championship was doubtlessly fueled by alcohol. It is good that the City of Tuscaloosa and West Alabama Chamber of Commerce support an organization like Pride of Tuscaloosa that is trying to get the message out about the consequences of under-aged drinking.

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Did T-Town dodge a Covid bullet?

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Maybe what T-Town may have dodged might be better characterized as shotgun pellets, rather than a bullet.

The crowd of thousands that gathered on The Strip to celebrate the University of Alabama‘s football team’s National Championship could be considered a “super-spreader” event. People on The Strip after the game were shouting at the top of their lungs and packed together like sardines on January 11th, 2021. There have been many documented incidents of groups of only hundreds, such as wedding parties, that have caused Coronavirus infections in a community.

Jason Morton‘s reported in his article in the Tuscaloosa News “COVID-19 cases hold steady in Tuscaloosa one week after title celebration”:

So far, no community spikes in COVID-19 infections related to last week’s celebration of the University of Alabama’s latest football national championship have been reported at local hospitals.

But, Mayor Walt Maddox said on Tuesday, this potentially could change in the coming days.

On the week following the celebration in the street there was an uptick in hospitalizations at DCH with a new high of 199 coronavirus inpatients, as the Patch‘s Ryan Phillips reported. Whether that would become a trend was not known.

Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in September 2020, co-authored a paper that linked community Covid-19 cases to college reopenings. Jillian Berman in Market Watch quoted him as having said:

“We’re sitting on a powder keg right now, between these new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 that are circulating, everyone having gone home for the winter break and having come back. We’re already in a bad situation and this has a risk of making it extremely bad.”

Such a study may have been one of the reasons why a labor union at the University of Alabama was so  concerned about the student celebration. In the University of Alabama‘s student newspaper The Crimson White, Grace Schlepis and Javon Williams reported:

UA Provost James Dalton announced a remote learning option for the first two weeks of the semester after Monday night’s championship celebration was deemed a possible superspreader event by Alabama health officials.

After Monday night’s events, United Campus Workers (UCW), a labor union representing UA employees, emailed Dalton and UA President Stuart Bell on Tuesday to demand a remote learning option. 

The University said in a statement on Tuesday that the spread of the virus is “almost nonexistent” in classrooms.

In its most recent meeting, Faculty Senate President Rona Donahoe reported that 90% of COVID cases were contracted off campus. 

Bell later said the gatherings on The Strip “underscore[d] the need for continued vigilance and caution by every member of our community.” 

UCW said that Monday night’s crowds “suggest that it is inevitable last night’s celebrations could lead to a local spike in new COVID-19 cases both within the City of Tuscaloosa and on our campus”

The nature of the Coronavirus is that college aged people have milder cases of the disease as pointed out in John Hopkins Medicine‘s Health bulletin. They are less likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 or to die from it. But they are also more likely to transmit the virus than others.

Seventy-five percent of students at the University of Alabama live off-campus. Only those who lived in dorms or fraternity houses on campus were required by the University to participate in Spring 2021 Reentry Testing. Since a large number of the students who participated in the championship celebration lived in student apartments near The Strip, they had likely not been tested. Perhaps fortune shined on T-Town and in that crowd of people, many of whom who had just returned from various cities in the United States, there were no Covid-19 carriers. However if there were Covid infected students, the extent of their proximity to people living in the community could be eventually reflected in hospital statistics.

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