Update on schools reiterates principles without saying what will be mandated, but Beshear and health chief urge more mask wearing

Kentucky Health News chart shows cases for last three weeks and seven-day rolling average.

As news develops about the coronavirus and its covid-19 disease, this item will be updated. Official state guidance is at kycovid19.ky.gov.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky schools were told Monday to prepare for intermittent closures during the school year to come, but they still await firm word from state officials about what will be recommended and what will be required.

The state Department of Education released guidance on intermittent closures that calls for use of “non-traditional instruction,” meaning online instruction at home, for short-term closures of one or two days, mid-term closures of three to 10 days, and long-term closures  of 11 or more days.

Gov. Andy Beshear stressed that it’s important to prepare for such closures to make sure schools have the resources needed to open and close successfully. He said closures could be “surgical,” involving just a class or a school, depending on the size of an outbreak and where it is located.

The education department posted a 10-to-15-minute survey seeking opinions of students’ families about their experiences with distance learning in the pandemic. The survey will remain open through June 24.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, Beshear’s secretary of education and workforce, gave a much-anticipated update on Monday’s meeting of the state’s Education Continuation Task Force, but offered few details.

She said the task force now includes four legislators: Reps. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg; Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, and Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, who last week suggested that Beshear create an advisory council for the reopening of schools.

Coleman said the task force is working to create a culture of support for the five best practices that public health officials have repeated over and over: “wearing masks, practicing social distancing, hand sanitizing and surface sanitizing, temperature checks and contact tracing.”

She said, “We have to now contemplate how does this look in a school system . . . whether there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of students in the building at one time. And that is certainly not going to be an easy feat.”

School superintendents have warned that many parents will resist efforts to make their children wear masks. Coleman, Beshear and Health Commissioner Steven Stack all focused at Beshear’s Monday briefing on the importance of wearing masks, and adults setting examples for children.

“It is going to be imperative that our students and the kids in our communities have positive role models and positive examples to actually practice what we preach,” Coleman said. “We should never ask of our students what we’re not willing to give. And so it’s really important for not just our teachers and our education leaders, but our community leaders and our state leaders to follow these guidelines as well.”

She said each school district will have to find the best way to implement state guidelines. “It is going to be a difficult lift and I’m not going to sugarcoat that because we have children who are involved,” she said. “I know that we are going to be able to do this as we work together.”

Beshear, asked about mandates, said he expected that some things will be mandated, while others will be are highly recommended. He didn’t elaborate.

“The more a school district does, not just the mandatory, but the highly recommended, the safer it becomes,” he said. “There’s not going to be a perfectly safe option out there. We know we’ve got to get back to school, and we hope that our school districts have a high commitment to safety and do everything that they can under both the mandatory and the recommended.”

Beshear spent much time talking about the importance of wearing masks, stressing that this is not just the advice of the state Department for Public Health, but of every public health official, including President Trump’s.

“The one most important thing we can do to prevent a spike, to make our reopening go the way we want it to, is to wear a mask,” he said. “I know this has become part of what some people call it a cultural war. Folks, this is not. This is the key to keeping each other alive. It’s the key to keeping our reopening. . . . You want our kids to be back in school as soon as possible and you’re not wearing a mask? You could be preventing what it is that you want to see. I know it’s not comfortable. But when every single health official – those working for President Trump, those working for me – say this is the very best shot we have, shouldn’t we be willing to do it?”

The renewed push to wear a mask comes as several states are starting to see a surge in new cases, with little mask wearing at many gatherings. People can spread the virus without having symptoms.

Stack showed a slide comparing the surges of new cases in Arizona, South Carolina and Florida, saying they began about a month ago, which corresponds roughly to the relaxation of social-distancing restrictions in those states.

Kentucky has seen a recent increase in cases, but Stack said it’s been more of a “zig-zag sort of pattern” that over time will likely look like a plateau, largely because of the efforts of the state to contain the virus. But he also cautioned, “We are at risk, just like everybody else for that sudden increase if we take our eye off the ball.”

Stack said prevention is essential because “There is no vaccine, there is no cure, there is no specific treatment for the coronavirus.”

When prevention fails and someone gets the virus, the key is identifying them and tracking down the people with whom they have made contact.

Mark Carter, who is in charge of the state’s contact-tracing efforts, encouraged Kentuckians to “answer the call” when a contact tracer reaches out to them as a way to help decrease the spread of the disease.

He also cautioned: “This is a private process; no one will ever ask you for bank account information or credit cards or anything like that. If it happens, you need to call the hotline in the attorney general’s office and report that call. You may be asked about your address and who lives with you and things of that nature, but that’s just to identify your contacts. The fraudulent stuff with Social Security numbers and bank account information and credit cards, call the attorney general.”

Reporting after no briefing or press release on Sunday, Beshear said Kentucky reported 85 new coronavirus cases that day and 120 on Monday, making the state’s adjusted total to 12,647, with 3,416 of them recovered. Click here for the daily report.

Beshear cautioned that Monday’s numbers are likely low because fewer labs report over the weekend. He also reported that 383 people are hospitalized with covid-19 and 63 of them are in intensive care. He said last week that he would look more at those figures than the daily number of new cases as he makes decisions about reopenings.

“Right now, we believe we are basically back to a plateau,” Beshear said. “We are not increasing at the rate of those that people talk about spiking, whether you look at Arizona or Texas and some others. . . . As of now, the reopening continues, but we are watching it and we are watching it closely.”

He also reported six more deaths Sunday and Monday, pushing the state’s death toll to 505.

In other covid-19 news on Monday:

  • The one death reported Sunday was a 91-year-old woman from Henry County. The five fatalities Monday were an 83-year-old woman from Fayette County; a 47-year-old man from Jefferson County; a 61-year-old woman from Logan County; and two women, 82 and 85, from Warren County.
  • Today, the highest number of new cases by county are in Fayette, with 25; Jefferson, with 24; Warren, with 15; and Shelby, with six.
  • In long-term care facilities, 59 more residents and 19 more staff have tested positive for the virus, bringing those totals up to 1,516 and 724 respectively, Beshear said. He announced nine more deaths in the facilities, bringing their death toll to 323 residents and three staff. Click here for the daily report on long-term care.
  • Free, drive-thru testing sponsored by Kroger will be offered in Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green and Oldham County next week. So far, 325,065 tests have been done in the state. Beshear called on local leaders, both in the community and in businesses, to encourage their people to get tested.
  • Beshear said the state is still working to process unemployment claims. He said that of the 167,420 requests that were filed in March, around 95 percent have been processed; of the  429,056 that were filed in April, around 94 percent have been processed; and of the 295,879 requests filed in May, 94 percent have been processed.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky is asking a federal judge to release medically vulnerable inmates held at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women at Pewee Valley, where at least 11 inmates and three employees have tested positive for the virus. The 733-bed prison at the western tip of Shelby County houses 639 inmates; the lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven inmates, all of whom say they are medically compromised. Beshear’s executive cabinet secretary, J. Michael Brown, said the state has begun testing all inmates and staff at the facility, following lessons it learned in the outbreak at the Green River Correctional Complex in Central City. Beshear said at this time there is no plan for any additional releases, noting the success at Green River of separating those who were medically compromised from the rest of the population.
  • Lexington’s health department reported today that there have been 54 confirmed new cases since officials last reported new infections on Saturday, Jeremy Chisenhall reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The department reports that 24% of Lexington’s cases come from the city’s Hispanic population, which makes up 7% of the city’s population, and 28% are black, though African Americans are just 15% of the city’s population. The story includes a news release about the virus in Spanish.
  • The Herald-Leader talks to experts about the safety of camping while the virus is spreading. Campgrounds in Kentucky opened June 11.
  • More than 630,000 Kentuckians have diabetes, making them more vulnerable to severe complications and death from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, Maridith Yahl reports for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. “It’s pretty clear that diabetes broadly is a risk factor based on the numbers we’re seeing,” Dana Howe, director of brand communications at Beyond Type 1, based in California, told Yahl. “We don’t know a lot about what that means for each individual, but I think it’s smart for everyone who’s impacted by diabetes to consider themselves high-risk.”  The article links to a website with recommendations about diabetes and the coronavirus.
  • While social distancing is important to decreasing the spread of the coronavirus, it can be particularly hard on those in recovery. UKNow offers tips for those struggling with recovery during covid-19, with a reminder that FindHelpNowKY.org is a great resource for those looking for treatment for substance use disorders.
  • Meatpacking plants, jails and prisons and nursing homes are driving the coronavirus outbreaks in rural conmmunities, Liam Niemeyer reports for Resource.
  • “A corporate wellness director, an anonymous donor, a fishing tournament weigh-in trailer, and an empty church with a large parking lot – not exactly what you’d think would make a rural Covid-19 testing site,” Liz Carey reports for the Daily Yonder about a rural town in Paducah thought “outside the box to create a free coronavirus testing site in their town.
  • Hospitalizations were six times higher and deaths were 12 times higher for covid-19 patients with reported underlying conditions,with the most frequently reported conditions being cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
  • The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has revoked the emergency authorization that allowed chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine sulfate to be used to treat certain hospitalized covid-19 patients when a clinical trial was unavailable. The drugs have long been approved to treat or prevent malaria, and some autoimmune conditions. An FDA official says in the release that clinical trials to evaluate the potential benefit of these drugs to treat or prevent covid-19 will continue. Click here for a list of frequently asked questions about this revocation. Click here for a Medpage Today story about the revocation. Dr. Stack said the lessons learned around treatment so far have been to “stick to the science and to not let false hope overtake the science.” Later adding, “I have optimism that our scientist are going to find answers, but it’s not going to happen over the next few months.”
  • modeling study shows that use of face masks may have prevented tens of thousands covid-19 infections in New York and Italy after both areas implemented public policies to wear them, Medpage Today reports. 
  • The New York Times reports on how 132 epidemiologists are deciding when to send their children to school. It found that 70% of them said they would do so either right now, later this summer or in the fall, others said they would wait for a vaccine.
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