Beshear promises ‘additional steps’ on virus; White House task force says to close bars and decrease restaurant capacity

Dr. Deborah Birx at the old governor’s mansion

Story and photos by Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

After meeting in Kentucky with the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Gov. Andy Beshear said he would announce new steps Monday for thwarting the spread of the virus.

“Our numbers are still going up, so tomorrow you can expect us to take some additional steps,” Beshear said. “The White House has provided us some clear guidance of what those steps should be . . . I will not let us become an Alabama, a Florida or an Arizona. We’ve got to take proactive steps and that is what we are trying to do.”

Beshear had said for several days that he was waiting to see if the recent surge continued or would be abated by his mask order and changes in Kentuckians’ behavior. Asked why he didn’t announce them Sunday, he said he wanted to directly communicate them to all Kentuckians. Today’s event was not broadcast on his Facebook or YouTube page.

The White House task force’s Dr. Deborah Birx, on a tour of several states, said it’s not too late for Kentucky to get ahead of its recent surge, but further steps are necessary, including closing bars and reducing indoor restaurant capacity, now at 50 percent.

Birx ticked off a list of recommendations for states with rising positivity rates; the only two left on the list that Kentucky hasn’t already implemented are closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity.

“We believe a state that has test positivity somewhere between 5 and 7 percent, like Kentucky, has a real opportunity to get ahead of this,” she told reporters after meeting with Beshear, Kentucky health officials and other stakeholders.

Beshear said the steps he will announce Monday are ones that White House and public-health officials think will have maximum impact, but “We’ve got to get better at every event that we are at. We’ve all got to get to the point that if we show up and we see something that doesn’t look right, we go home. That should be a bar, that should be a restaurant, that should be a retail facility.”

Beshear announced 316 new cases of the virus Sunday, for a seven-day rolling average of 593. He noted that Sunday numbers are often low because of fewer test results. The positive-test rate is usually not reported on Sundays; Saturday the state saw its highest rate since testing became widespread: 5.41%.

Beshear said he would also make new recommendations for schools tomorrow. Birx said her recommendations for states to reopen schools are the same recommendations to get the positive-test rates down: mandating masks, increased social distancing, closing bars, restricting indoor dining, and rules to discourage people from gathering socially in large groups.

“There is a way to get this virus under control so that schools can open safely in Kentucky, but it will take all Kentuckians to make that their top priority,” she said. “Each state needs to make that decision school district by school district, to make sure that the virus levels in that school district are low and we think every governor and every school district has the ability to get there if they follow these guidelines.”

Birx said overall, Kentucky is currently in the task force’s “yellow zone,” because its positive-test rate is between 5% and 10%. She said states are considered in the “red zone” for positive test rates above 10%.

In Kentucky, she said, “We do have some specific counties and some specific metros in what we call the covid red zone. We have another whole set of counties and metros in the yellow zone. As a state, we have the state. . . in the yellow zone, with clear recommendations of what to do to prevent it from becoming a statewide covid red zone and that is the part that I was talking about that the governor and I agree completely.”

Another metric the task force looks at is weekly cases, though Birx did not address this measure. After hitting a seven-day rolling average of  4,673 cases yesterday, Kentucky moved into a “red zone” for this measure because it was more than 100 per 100,000 population. That’s 1,000 cases per million, and Kentucky’s estimated population is 4.468 million, so its “red zone” threshold is 4,468 cases per week. Sunday’s lower case number brought the 7-day total below that level, to 4,153.

Birx emphasized the importance of everyone wearing masks in indoor spaces, and expanded that recommendation to people who live in multi-generational homes if there has been a chance of exposure to the virus.

“Frankly, people should be wearing mask if they’ve been in an area where the virus is significant,” she said. “And they’ve gone on vacation and they’ve come back, they should wear a mask indoors in their homes if they are in a multi-generational household in order to protect our seniors optimally.”

Beshear at old mansion

Beshear has said that much of the virus’ spread in Kentucky now is from people who have gone on vacation to hotspots, and have brought it back. Birx said the virus is largely being spread among Southern states with high cases from people under 30 who are asymptomatic and unknowingly spread it to parents and grandparents.

“This current wave of infection is very much across the state, probably due to people being exposed unknowingly when they were out and about, who have then brought those infections back to  their homes and back to the county,” Birx said.

She later noted that while the first wave of the epidemic was concentrated in large metropolitan areas and the “bedroom communities” around them, as well as specific congregate facilities such as nursing homes, the current spread of the virus is following a different pattern.

“This spread is very much at the household level,” Birx said. “That’s why we have a real call to action for every Kentuckian to wear their mask and to protect those in their families by not going to large social gatherings. And if they do, to make sure they are protecting those in their families that have substantial vulnerabilities that we know are related to obesity, hypertension, diabetes and chronic lung, heart or kidney disease.”

Birx said she is traveling from state to state. “This current group of states, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia tomorrow, are the next set of states where we have significant concerns about the rising test posititivity rate and the rising number of cases,” she said. “And it is due to that that we wanted to come in person to really discuss what we were seeing and what we think, along with the local and state governors and mayors, what they are thinking needs to be done.”

Beshear reported four new deaths Sunday, bringing the state’s covid-19 toll to 700: a 37-year-old man and an 87-year-old woman from Jefferson County; a 70-year-old woman from Harlan County; and a 76-year-old man from Ohio County.

Counties with 10 or more new cases Sunday were Jefferson, 55; Fayette, 23; Warren, 21; Kenton, 15; Graves and Scott, with 11 each; and Oldham, 10. Click here for the daily report.

Asked about Beshear’s offical advisory to not travel to states with a 15% or higher positive-test rates, and to quarantine for 14 days if they do, Birx said that while it is important to know what the virus activity level is in a location you are going to, she has been travelling to states with high rates of the virus and has not contracted it, suggesting that it can be safe to travel.

“You can travel if you are super careful, but that means when you are there you are not going to bars and crowded settings and you are not going into large social groups where infection can be spread,” she said. ” It is possible to travel safely, but you do have to take a level of precaution and those are all on the CDC website on how to travel more safely.”

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