Spring lockdown followed by summer events makes people let their guard down and spread the virus, health departments say

Lexington Herald-Leader map, relabeled by Kentucky Health News

Coronavirus cases are surging in Kentucky because “people are letting their guard down” at summer events like barbecues, parades and vacations, Alex Acquisto of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports after interviewing local health-department directors and employees.

“Things are open, [people] have been locked down for three months and they want to live their lives thinking they can’t get it,” said Alicia Thompson, an infection-control nurse in Graves County, where cases have risen 18 percent in the last two weeks, the seventh-highest increase per-capita increase in the state.

“It’s the smaller communities across the state where growth rates are exploding,” Acquisto writes. “While outbreaks in congregate settings such as nursing homes continue to be reliable hotspots, it’s the patchwork of small-to-medium sized interactions between people, including outdoor cookouts, that are largely to blame for Kentucky’s surge, according to eight health department directors across more than 30 counties.”

People in their 20s and 30s are driving the increase in the eight Southern Kentucky counties served by the Barren River District Health Department, Director Matt Hunt said, “The average age of those who’ve tested positive is 38,” Acquisto writes. “This may not be a surprise, many said, but it should serve as a reminder: even small groups of people can propagate aggressive spread of the virus.”

Lake Cumberland District Health Department Director Shawn Crabtree tracks major causes of infections in his 10-county area: 14% from churches, 3% from restaurants and 18% from businesses, but he notes, “One person could be tied to more than one area. You could be tied to travel and church if you are positive during both of those activities.”
Directors told Acquisto that use of masks has increased since Gov. Andy Beshear ordered it, but remains spotty. “It seems like we’ve got half that take it seriously and half that don’t. Half that believe it’s a hoax or is being inflated,” Crabtree said.
Another director “wonders if Kentucky’s early success at keeping its infection rates at bay is now working against it,” Acquisto reports. “The state’s health care system has so avoided being hobbled by unmanageable case loads or deaths, making it easy for some to dismiss the still-present dangers of the virus.”

Kentucky River District Health Department Director Scott Lockard told Acquisto that the success of preventive efforts can go unappreciated: “Nothing is happening and people get complacent and think, ‘Oh, this is not as bad as it’s been made out to be,’ so they start getting together again,” he said.
Now Lockard worries about the many people in his area whose underlying health conditions make them more vulnerable to dying of covid-19. “When it hits us full force, which I still do not think it has hit us like it’s going to hit us here in Eastern Kentucky, we’re going to see some very negative impacts on some very medically fragile people,” he said. “We’re playing with life and death here.”
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