MONTGOMERY — Alabama state agencies say they need more flexibility in purchasing during emergencies and the ability to hire essential staff in times of crisis.
Those were among the findings of the Alabama Pandemic Response and Preparedness Commission based on input from various state agencies on how they responded in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission’s final report included recommendations that could become legislation.
Commission co-chair Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said during a recent and likely final meeting of the commission that one of the main takeaways after reading the agencies’ responses was the need to be more proactive instead of reactive in situations like a pandemic.
“I think one of the biggest things we learned is that we need to be ready and willing and find a way when somebody gets even the thought of being overwhelmed and that we preemptively find them and what they need,” Melson said.
Both the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Department of Labor were impacted on the personnel front particularly hard during the pandemic. Labor struggled to find enough skilled workers to handle the flood of unemployment claims last year and there was an overall strain placed on health care workers, including in the public sector.
One of the commission’s suggestions for possible legislation involves exploring ways to “provide flexibility in staffing by sharing of public employees among state agencies” or to better utilize private sources such as call centers.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said during the meeting that even though his department has gotten a lot of help from federal COVID relief funds, that money only funds new personnel for a finite amount of time.
“You’re fortunate to get somebody within six or eight months by the time you start looking for them, so most of the hiring we’re going to be able to do is going to be good for about a year and then we’re not going to have funding for that again,” Harris said.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said during the meeting that he thinks more community resources, especially ones in the Black Belt, could have been better utilized for things like the vaccination efforts instead of relying on just the ADPH or larger institutions.
“What we’ve realized in this pandemic is that because we’ve done everything on a reimbursement basis, that we’ve left out a lot of small entities that do a lot of great work, but just don’t have the upfront money to spare to get reimbursed,” Singleton said. “I think we've got to change how we think about the federal dollars that we’re putting out there if we want to see sustainable results.”
Reports on how they responded were also submitted from the departments of education, finance, mental health, veterans affairs, the Emergency Management Agency and the Alabama Nursing Home Association.
Another suggestion in the report was simply “funding the Alabama Department of Public Health,” but Melson later said that there are still ongoing discussions of what that would look like.
The report also suggests extending the recently passed law that gives businesses and other groups liability protection from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 for an additional two years.
Senate Bill 30 from Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was approved by the Legislature in February and says the immunity provided under the law will end on Dec. 31, 2021 or one year after a declared health emergency relating to coronavirus expires, whichever is later.
The commission is also recommending codifying the remote or electronic participation in meetings held by government bodies during states of emergencies that Gov. Kay Ivey allowed starting with her first state of emergency declaration.
The last suggested proposal from the commission is to “update the laws relating to the mission and duties of the Alabama Department of Public Health by deleting antiquated provisions and aligning language with current public health practice and needs; solicit input from the Alabama Department of Public Health on this legislation.”
Melson couldn’t say on Monday what this would mean as far as specific legislation but said the suggestion was mostly to speak to concerns felt by some that decisions being made by Ivey and ADPH at the start of the pandemic were not being communicated clearly to the public.
“I think people can understand and work through difficulties as long as they know why they’re doing it,” Melson told ADN.
Commission co-chair Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, said during the meeting that the findings will help guide the group in the coming months as the state still deals with COVID-19 but also prepares for the next unforeseen emergency.
“I think we’ve realized that we do not need to work in silos when there’s a pandemic, that we have to work together and be as responsive and as quickly as possible, and not be ashamed to call out for help when we need it,” Lee said.
The commission is also required to submit a final report of its findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature by the first day of the 2022 regular session.