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Officials expect State House to be open in 2022 session, watching COVID-19 case increases

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

State House officials are watching COVID-19 case numbers, but as of now say health protocols in the upcoming legislative session will look much like those in the two fall special sessions.

Social distancing was encouraged and masks were recommended but not required throughout most of the building.

“As of right now, we’ll be open,” Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris said on Wednesday.

The State House was never officially closed in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, but access was limited. In the spring 2021 regular session, distancing requirements meant there weren’t many places for the public to gather. 

In the two two-week fall special sessions of the Legislature, restrictions were eased. 

“It’ll basically look like it did the last two specials, but that’s all subject to change,” Harris said. 

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the state and hospitalizations have increased more than 50% recently, but are still well below summer 2021 and winter 2020 numbers. 

As of Wednesday, 436 Alabamians were hospitalized with COVID-19-related illnesses, according to the Alabama Hospital Association. That’s up from 250 about a month ago. 

The new, fast-spreading omicron variant has been confirmed in the state, but health officials don’t believe it has overtaken the delta strain yet, The Associated Press reported this week. Omicron cases don’t respond to monoclonal antibody treatments that have helped patients in recent months, posing a problem once the variant arrives in force, officials said.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in cases, percent positivity and hospitalizations at the moment,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told Alabama Daily News on Wednesday. “While we can’t say for certain that this is omicron, it almost certainly is.”

The 2022 session starts Jan. 11 and could last through mid-April. 

Dr. Harris advised caution for anyone entering the State House, or any building containing hundreds of people and poor ventilation. The State House’s HVAC and other structural issues are documented.

Pat Harris said committee meetings would have limited seating and would be live streamed.

“I think that’s going to be a permanent fixture,” he said about the option for remote viewing.

Clerk of the House Jeff Woodard said he’d be talking to leadership in that chamber about health protocols next week.

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