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Officials say plan to house Covid-19 patients in Anniston is canceled

County Coronavirus meeting

Anniston Mayor Jack Draper shows Commissioners Fred Wilson and Eli Henderson his phone where US Congressman Mike Rogers announced that the coronavirus evacuees WILL NOT be coming to Anniston during a called emergency meeting of the Calhoun County Commissioners at the Calhoun County Administrative Building in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Plans to bring patents infected with the coronavirus COVID-19 to Anniston were canceled today, local officials announced this afternoon, just more than 24 hours after most of those officials said they’ve learned of the plans.

The announcement came during a day crowded with emergency meetings of local governments across Calhoun County, as officials grappled with how to react to the coronavirus news.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks wrote in a tweet he had spoken to President Donald Trump twice within 24 hours and had recently spoken with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby tweeted a similar statement around the same time as the Rogers announcement. 

“I just got off the phone with the President,” Shelby tweeted. “He told me that his administration will not be sending any victims of the coronavirus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to Anniston, Alabama.”

Passengers from coronavirus-quarantined ship to be housed at Anniston FEMA center
We asked federal officials about coronavirus and the CDP. Here are their answers

The federal Department of Health and Human Services had announced Saturday afternoon that it would house at Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness evacuees from the cruise ship Diamond Princess. The ship had been docked and quarantined in Japan for more than a month after hundreds of its 2,666 passengers tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus first observed late last year in Wuhan, China. 

Anniston, Weaver and Jacksonville city councils held emergency meetings Sunday to discuss their options, less than 24 hours after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced its plans to house patients at the CDP, a Federal Emergency Management Agency training facility in Anniston. The Calhoun County Commission also convened Sunday afternoon, and Oxford’s City Council called a meeting shortly after the coronavirus plan was scrubbed.

Local officials said they had no notice of the coronavirus plan before it was announced to the public by HHS around noon Saturday — and 24 hours later, many local officials said they’d still been given few details about the plan. 

Gov. Kay Ivey’s office issued a statement Sunday that said HHS emailed its Saturday announcement “inadvertently, and perhaps prematurely,” and said she had been told the Anniston center was being considered only as a back-up housing site. The governor’s statement said she’d been informed by HHS about the plan “late Friday night.”

HHS officials, in telephone interviews Saturday, gave no indication that the release was sent out by accident or that Anniston was merely a backup site. Attempts to reach HHS officials Sunday were unsuccessful.

At the Anniston council’s Sunday meeting, council members voted 3-1 to ask the city attorney to begin drafting a legal motion to block the federal government from sending patients to the CDP. Council members stopped short of a vote to file a lawsuit, saying they hoped to get more details about the plan for the patients later today.

“We do not have all the information at hand,” said Mayor Jack Draper.

At the Jacksonville meeting, Mayor Johnny Smith expressed concerns about how the virus is transferred, how the patients would have been transported to the CDP and whether the CDP was prepared to take them in. Smith said he did not know specifically what actions Anniston and county officials planned to take.

The council passed the resolution unanimously in less than 10 minutes.

Locals react

The HHS announcement generated a strong response from residents of Anniston. More than 50 people showed up for the impromptu meeting Anniston council meeting this morning, some asking why Anniston was chosen and what risks the virus might pose to the local community.

“This is not fair,” said Anniston resident Yvonne Gomez. “This is our lives versus their lives.”

Council members expressed internal conflict over the coronavirus plan. 

“I’m scared,” said Councilman Jay Jenkins, who lives at McClellan, not far from the CDP. People in the audience applauded that remark.

“I’m scared of what it could be,” Jenkins continued. “In spite of that, I cannot help hearing Matthew 25:40 in my head. ‘When you took care of the least of these, you took care of me.’”

Jenkins said the coronavirus patients are victims, infected through no fault of their own. He said the community took on risks of this sort when it lobbied to get the Center for Domestic Preparedness, where first responders train for just this sort of emergency.

“We got a benefit from this thing, but that benefit comes with a price,” he said. 

Councilman Ben Little cast the sole vote against the motion to begin working on a lawsuit. He too said the city has accepted the center with the risks in mind, and that the virus victims deserve to be treated with kindness.

Anniston City Council

A large crowd attended an emergency meeting of the Anniston City Council to discuss the city's response to the federal government's announcement of a plan to bring people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to a FEMA facility in Anniston. 

“I hope and pray these people get well soon,” he said. 

Councilwoman Millie Harris also expressed sympathy for the patients — but she questioned the choice of Anniston. She asked whether the federal government had considered less populated areas and whether the arrival of coronavirus patients would create a precedent for future health crises. 

“We need to be concerned with the health of our community,” she said.

Legal path forward

The Weaver City Council authorized city attorney Jason Odom to work with attorneys from other municipalities and with the county to attempt to block the move. 

Odom said after the council’s morning meeting that he’d already spoken with Bruce Downey, Anniston’s city attorney, and they had started drafting documentation. The city of Costa Mesa, Calif., filed for an injunction Friday to stop cruise ship evacuees from being housed within its city limits. A federal judge granted the injunction Saturday. Odom said the Costa Mesa filing was under review as a possible source for local legal action. 

Mayor Wayne Willis said he believed the Costa Mesa lawsuit may have influenced federal decision-makers to make the sudden announcement. 

“This is my personal opinion, but I think this was all planned to hit on the weekend, thinking all the elected officials are off on the weekends, city halls are closed, and they’ll just quietly slip this on through,” Willis said. “They had already lost in California and they knew there was going to be resistance.” 

Willis said he had learned from his own sources that the decision to move evacuees to Anniston had been made Thursday, and that the CDP had rejected the idea, though it had no say in the process. 

In his opinion, Willis said, the area isn’t ready for coronavirus patients. 

“The Center for Domestic Preparedness is designed to train first responders for a chemical incident. They have a very small subsection to deal with infectious diseases,” Willis said. “With the facilities we have at our disposal, I don’t see how we could be prepared for this.” 

Weaver residents, like others in the county, were upset about the announcement, and had been reaching out to city leaders.

“They’re scared, and rightfully so,” Willis said.  

The Jacksonville City Council held an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon, at which the council unanimously voted to support Anniston and county officials in whatever actions they took regarding the transfer.

In its meeting, the Calhoun County Commission voted unanimously to take legal action and to declare a state of emergency that, according to county emergency management director Michael Barton, would allow the county to request new types of protective equipment. 

During the meeting, commission members got word of the tweets by Rogers and Shelby that the transport of the patients was canceled. 

“We’re hearing from all the right people that it’s not going to happen in Anniston,” County Commission Chairman Tim Hodges said. 

Local residents at the meeting, where there was a standing-room-only crowd, still had questions, and some expressed frustration. Bobby Foster is co-owner of the McClellan Medical Mall, which is near the CDP; he said he expected many of the mall’s 200 medical appointments set for Monday to be canceled, as fear of contagion spreads on the Internet.

“This is wildfire on social media,” he said. 

Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said the Anniston City Council plans to convene again at 9 a.m. Monday for a meeting at Anniston’s City Meeting Center. Local officials and Rogers also plan a press conference for 11 a.m. Monday, also at the City Meeting Center.