MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Information about the coronavirus is changing day by day, and that is why the state of Alabama has a team of state agencies working side by side to gather information and compile data about COVID-19 as the worldwide pandemic continues to unfold.
Located in the RSA Tower in downtown Montgomery, Alabama’s Unified Command for COVID-19 Response is a team comprised of four state agencies - the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), Alabama Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), Alabama National Guard, and Alabama Forestry Commission. Together, they have joined forces to help fight the deadly coronavirus.
“Unified Command has been driving this operation now for over a month,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. “It’s been extremely important for us in public health because we don’t, we simply don’t have the capacity to handle the problem of this size.”
Harris said ADPH is not used to dealing with a crisis that has this much widespread impact, so having all the entities partner together has been “extremely fortunate.”
“People bring so many different skill sets and so much expertise,” Harris said. “Things that we don’t have internally, and so we are so fortunate to have all of that in Alabama and have all of that on the same team working together.”
With so much information being shared about COVID-19 at once, one team’s job inside of Unified Command is to collect COVID-19 data and then assemble it into a more understandable graphic for the response team to understand. That graphic is then used to help make important policy decisions for the entire state.
“We’re not making policy in the Unified Command, we’re arming the administration with the facts, the figures, the data, the trends, all those things, to decide where Alabama is in this fight with this virus,” said Col. Jim Hawkins, Inter-agency Coordinator for the Governor inside the Unified Command.
“We receive a lot of the data that is pushed out through the department of public health and a few other areas, and we take that data and our job is to collect it together, put it in different products that are a little easier to process visually,” said Alabama National Guard Major Joshua Lackey. “Our job is to give the Unified Command and Colonel Hawkins a better picture of what all of this means so they are able to make informed decisions.”
Another team is gathering information on hospitals to make sure they have what they need and do not become overcrowded.
“What this team has done is continues to look at the capacity of hospitals so both equipment and staffing,” said Medical Operations Branch Chief Lisa Pierce. “Think ventilators, think ICU beds, and then do they have the nurse/doctor support that they need. So as this unfolded this team began to look across the state to see where the surges were, where the hot spots were, and began to track those numbers.”
Pierce said now her team is focusing its attention on nursing home facilities and the kind of decontamination services they need. The National Guard is providing those services free of charge and is training the nursing homes on how to properly sanitize.
She said now they are thinking ahead as we move into fall.
“As we think ahead, knowing that as we move into the fall, what kind of surge we might face when COVID is starting to now mix in with the flu and what does that do with our hospital capacities,” Pierce said. “What we’ve actually found is that we’ve got good resources across the state so we have a good handle on what those ventilator resources are, those bed resources, and we feel like we’ve got a handle on it if there happens to be a surge.”
Her team has also gone out and looked at some community colleges and some other places where they might be able to pull ventilator assets if they need it, but for now, Pierce said they have the capacity they need.
There is another team of people monitoring the state’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) stock and making sure that the state is ordering PPE from the right vendors and getting them in a timely manner.
“The procurement process has been a challenge because our normal supply chains were almost non- existent.They just didn’t have enough product to support everyone,” Procurement Officer Bethany Elliot said. “It took a lot of effort to source good reputable vendors that we could get product from. We put a lot of effort into that and Alabama has done really well whereas some states didn’t get product and lost money we have not had that problem.”
Elliot said when it came time to order PPE when the pandemic first hit Alabama they were behind some other states, but they were able to take hold of the situation.
“We jumped in and found some good product and got it on the way,” Elliot said. “It’s still rolling in, of course everything comes in waves, but we are getting product regularly, and filling requests as we can.”
She said she thinks product is more readily available now, and getting the PPE will still be a challenge, but not as much of a challenge as it was a couple of months ago.
Something they are in need of is isolation gowns.
“If you can make isolation gowns give us a call because that is still a shortage,” Elliot said. “Those are lightweight gowns you typically see in a lab setting but we could use a lot of those.”
Another team is in charge of taking the PPE and testing kits and distributing it to the hospital facilities and first responders that need it across the state. They house all of the product in two warehouses.
“We are filling requests for medical facilities around the state as well as EMS, local fire, law enforcement and state agencies as well. Our logistics team prepares, we use a resource request system, they prepare the orders, and they’re sent to the warehouse and they’re filled and then they’re delivered around the state,” said AEMA Logistics Coordinator Robert Baylis. “We utilize the national guard and forestry extensively out there at the warehouse to help us distribute.”
All four state agencies have been working together since late March. Harris said the agencies plan to continue collaborating their many efforts for the foreseeable future.
“The number of people here in the building, for example, may go up or may go down depending on what’s happening in the state but I think we all feel like that we’re going to need to continue to work together for many months to come,” Harris said. “When we see outbreaks they are going to require bigger responses and there may be times when we might not have so many people working together but it’s going to be going on for a while.”