Beshear says he wouldn’t ask teachers to return to classrooms now, and may ask schools planning early-August starts to wait

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

As Kentucky’s coronavirus surge continued Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear said he wouldn’t ask a teacher to resume teaching now, but “I want to see where we are early next week,” when he hopes the effect of his mask mandate will be seen in the daily numbers.

“We are in just as critical as moment as were in late March,” he said, adding later, “If we don’t see a stabilization at least by early next week I’m likely to make a recommendation” to school districts planning to start classes “in early, early August that you push back a little bit and give us time to see if we can get it under control.”

Beshear said more Kentuckians are wearing masks, but “The facial covering mandate isn’t showing up yet in our numbers” and “if we don’t see a significant leveling off,” he will have to look at closing bars and cutting restaurant capacity to 25 percent from 50%, as recommended by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, as well as other measures.

“If we continue to have an escalation, we couldn’t ignore the advice we’ve gotten from the White House and other experts,” he said. “There are steps we would have to take, and we would be looking at others as well. Our goal would be how to we get the maximum impact on reducing the virus with the smallest impact on our economy and other areas.”

Daily data: Beshear reported 611 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday, raising the seven-day rolling average to 593, more than double what it was on July 7, as the surge was beginning.

“High numbers today, but I’m hopeful,” he said at the end of his daily briefing. “I’m hopeful again, from what we are seeing out there, that we are taking this seriously and we are going to do what it takes to stop this. Next couple of days are going to be really important. The data we see early next week is gonna drive a lot of decisions.”

Beshear said 4.94% of Kentuckians tested for the virus in the last week have tested positive, which he said was about two percentage points higher than it was three weeks ago. Wednesday’s seven-day rolling average was 4.92%.

“We continue to see a very disturbing trend of kids under 5 testing positive,” he said. “Today it’s 21 kids” in 13 counties.

On the plus side, covid-19 hospitalizations were down slightly, as were the number in intensive care. “We are still in a generally good place with our overall bed capacity,” Beshear said, “but in escalating cases that can get out of control really fast and we continue to see hospital systems in states to our south running out of ICU beds.”

Beshear reported seven more deaths from covid-19, noting a younger trend. The fatalities were a 49-year-old woman from Fayette County, a 57-year-old woman from Jefferson County; a 60-year-old woman from Casey County; a 64-year-old woman from Knox County; a 68-year-old woman from Whitley County; and two women, 88 and 89, from Ohio County.

Another employee of a long-term-care facility died of the disease, bringing that total to four. Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander announced that all employees at congregate residential settings serving older or disabled adults will be tested at least every 14 days. Those who test positive will be tested again for confirmation, and residents with symptoms will also be tested.

Louisville study indicates wider infection: Four to six times more people than previously reported may have been exposed to the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, according to researchers tracking it in Jefferson County. The University of Louisville‘s Co-Immunity Project tested a representative sample of 509 residents and got results from 1,728 others who heard about the project and were tested on their own.

“At least 0.05 percent of the participants had an active infection,” and somewhere between 3.2 and 5.1 percent “had detectable levels of antibodies in their blood, indicating they had been exposed to the virus earlier in the year,” the project reported. “It would suggest that as many as 20,000 people may have been exposed to the virus – many more than the 3,813 cases reported in the city by the end of June,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, director of U of L’s Brown Envirome Institute.

“This difference may be due to the fact that people did not have symptoms and were not aware they were infected,” a university news release said. Beshear, at his briefing, said that if the study is accurate, it indicates a much larger number of people have the virus without symptoms. Research shows they can still spread it.

Rachel Keith, the assistant professor of environmental medicine who conducted the study, said in the release, “This suggests that the virus is much more widespread in our community than previously estimated. I believe this indicates a need for continued and widespread testing, including antibody testing, which plays an important role in understanding the spread of disease.”

Child care: A poll of Kentucky parents and families, taken as many Kentuckians went back to work June 24 through July 14, found that nearly 30% struggled to find child care, and more than half said they were moderately to extremely stressed about sending their child back to child care, mainly for reasons of health and safety. The poll was commissioned by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Kentucky Youth Advocates and other organizations including local United Way philanthropies.

Asked about the poll, Beshear said child care is one of his many worries. “It’s a heck of challenge,” he said. “I’m a big supporter of child care but I’ve had to make some tough decisions. Friedlander said there is a greatly reduced capacity across our system” because 20% of centers haven’t reopened and the state has limited the size of groups to 10 children. He said officials need to discuss additional support and services for the centers.

Consortium chart; most labels added by Ky. Health News

Polls on leaders: Before Beshear issued his mask order on July 9, Kentuckians’ approval of his handling of the pandemic had dropped to around 60 percent, from the nearly 80 percent in late April, according to polls by The Covid-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, formed by a group of survey researchers at several major universities.

President Trump remains popular in Kentucky, which he carried by almost 30 percentage points in 2016, but the polls showed his rating on the pandemic well under Beshear, a Democrat. The gap has narrowed in each poll, and Trump’s rating may have risen in June, but the increase was only 4 points and the poll’s margin of error for Kentucky is plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Largest available screenshot of map in CDC-published study

A warning: Kentucky is among the states most vulnerable to severe covid-19 illness due to five underlying medical conditions in the population, says a study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The conditions are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and obesity; the data are from 2018.

“Prevalence was higher in more rural counties,” the study says. “The findings can help local decision-makers identify areas at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness in their jurisdictions and guide resource allocation and implementation of community mitigation strategies.”

In other covid-19 news Thursday:

  • Counties with more than five new cases were Jefferson, 116; Warren, 49; Oldham, 32; Fayette, 28; Boyle, 27; Harlan, 19; Laurel, 19; Bell, 17; Kenton, 16; Campbell and Graves, 14 each; Christian and Daviess, 13 each; Jessamine and Scott, 12 each; Hardin and Ohio, 10 each; Boone and Henderson, 9 each; Bullitt and Madison, 8 each; Pike, 7; and Trigg, 6.
  • The University of Kentucky, blaming a software problem, reported that 26 of its 30,000 coronavirus tests had produced false positive results. Noting the small percentage, Beshear said “We believe that with the number of tests out there the error rate is very low.”
  • The state Supreme Court allowed Circuit Judge Brian Privett of Georgetown to keep hearing a lawsuit challenging Beshear’s emergency orders. Beshear had cited a social-media post in which Privett referred to one of the plaintiffs, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles of Georgetown, as a friend, but he said in court that he has no personal relationship with Quarles.
  • Current research confirms that direct person-to-person transmission is the main way the virus spreads, so “That’s why social distancing and using protective equipment including face masks is really critical for reducing the spread,” says UK virologist Rebecca Dutch. She says one big question is the coming flu season; getting one virus could make you more vulnerable to the other, “but we also know that in some cases, having one virus can essentially keep the other from infecting. . . . I would strongly suggest going into this flu season that everyone get a flu shot.”
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