Cases up, positive-test rate down; Beshear says mask mandate having effect, but suggests more people should work from home

State chart adapted by KHN; current period has 3 of 7 days remaining; at current rate would be 3845.

By Al Cross and Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Thursday’s coronavirus numbers were mixed, but Gov. Andy Beshear kept accentuating the positive, saying he sees the impact of his July 9 order requiring Kentuckians to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors when they can’t stay six feet apart.

“It appears that face coverings are making a difference,” Beshear said as he announced 659 new cases of the virus, raising the seven-day rolling average by seven, to 612.

“We believe what we are generally seeing is a leveling off or at least a significant decrease in the escalation” that began in early July, he said.

The day’s good number was 5.66 percent, the share of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the last seven days. Wednesday’s seven-day percentage was 5.81.

Noting weekly figures, he said “We at least stopped the significant escalation in that last week we’re showing, and we believe we are going to be somewhere in that zone at the end of this week.”

Beshear said the state remains in “a danger zone, but again with the time to do things right.” In a new suggestion, he said businesses could help by letting more of their employees work from home.

“I think the further that we’ve gotten into this virus, the more people have tried to pull 100 percent of their employees back in the office, and that doesn’t help,” he said, adding later that he had heard, anecdotally, that many workplaces are operating at 100%. “I would still really suggest people stay down around 50 percent,” he said. “If people are productive virtually, don’t mess with their production.”

Health Commissioner Steven Stack also pointed to the bar graph of weekly case numbers showing that Kentucky was able to maintain a long, sustained plateau for almost three months, but has recently started to escalate in such a way that he said “is scary again.”

“We are all dying, some just more quickly than others. So I accept that; that’s called mortality,” said Stack, an emergency-room physician by trade. “I am not here to separate you from your death. I would just like to delay it as long as I reasonably can.”
The old and the young: Stack said some people have been “cavalier” about the facts that 97% of Kentuckians killed by the virus were over 50, and 90% were 60, suggesting that -these are people who are going to die anyway. He said people in those age groups seek his help.
“I get letters every day from people who tell me they really don’t want to die, that they kind of value the one life they have, and so for them it does matter. And so if you are in those high-risk categories, it really matters. They are relying upon the rest of us to behave responsibly so they don’t pay a price with the one life they have.”
Though younger people don’t often die from covid-19, it is a disease with many effects, and we still don’t know a lot about it, Stack said.
He noted that we didn’t know for months that it could cause multi-system inflammatory disorder in children, and we still don’t know what kind of long-term or permanent damage it will cause.
And in young adults, he said the virus can cause blood-clotting disorders, including strokes, pulmonary embolisms and heart problems, that can cause permanent damage. Recent studies show that as many as one in five young adults still have symptoms up to three weeks after diagnosis, he said.
“That’s not the flu,” he said, using a familiar comparison used by skeptics. “The flu lays you low for a while and then you bounce back, that’s a lot longer recovery.” And people over 50 are twice as likely as young adults to have symptoms three weeks after diagnosis, he said.
Also, some people suffer irreversible lung damage. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” he said. “And so, I’m not trying to fear-monger. I’m just trying to tell you there’s a lot we don’t  know,” he said. The New York Times published a long rundown of the strange things the virus does.
Contact tracing: The July surge did not overwhelmed the state’s contact tracers, the employees who call people who have had contact with those who have tested positive for the virus, said Mark Carter, the official overseeing the program.

Carter said the tracers are reaching 70% to 75% of those identified as contacts, and they have “overwhelmingly” been cooperative when asked to self-quarantine. “They want to protect their health, they want to protect their loved ones,” he said. “Certainly, there are those that are uncooperative, but so far those have been far in the minority.”

He said more cases could overwhelm the program, so it’s important to recognize it as one measure of the state’s response to the pandemic. He suggested that its big test will come when students return to classrooms. “Indoor settings are an issue,” he said, “and as we look at school returning, whenever that happens, that is of significant concern to us.”

In other covid-19 news Thursday:
  • The state reported seven more deaths from covid-19, raising its toll to 731. The fatalities were a 75-year-old man from Casey County; a 65-year-old man from Christian County; a 92-year-old woman from Green County; an 82-year-old man from Greenup County; an 81-year-old woman from Ohio County; a 63-year-old woman from Simpson County; and a 70-year-old woman from Warren County.
  • Counties with more than 10 new cases were Jefferson,138; Fayette, 42; Warren, 22; Laurel, 20; Hardin, 18; Shelby, 17; Graves and Henderson, 15 each; Christian and Daviess, 14 each; Kenton and Mercer, 13 each; Barren, Oldham and Scott, 12 each; and Franklin and Pulaski, 11 each.
  • Beshear said the day’s 659 new cases included 22 children under 5.
  • In long-term care facilities, 12 more residents and 18 more employees tested positive for the virus, but no new deaths were attributed to the facilities. Five more facilities were added to the list of those with a least one case, raising the total to 253.
  • He cast some doubt on the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, to be held at 60% spectator capacity, when asked if he would go if it were held now. “I think everybody wants us to see improvements on where our numbers are,” and if the recent escalation continued, “I would have to think long and hard before really going anywhere and that’s about a decision for me and my family,” he said. “If the numbers are still where they are right now in September, that means we’ve done a great job plateauing them, and if that’s the case I probably would go and hand out that trophy.” He said he hopes Churchill Downs is continuing to find ways to make the event safer.
  • Asked abut the state fair, set for Aug. 20-30, he said the Department for Public Health “sent an additional series of recommendations . . . for them to consider in light of where we are right now. And remember, anything that is held out there or anywhere else around Kentucky that is large, if not done well, can ultimately upset other opportunities to do large events.” He said he did not know what the agency’s recommendations were.
  • Beshear said mediation failed to resolve Northern Kentucky landlords’ lawsuit challenging his ban on evictions, so the suit will head toward trial. The state Supreme Court is allowing eviction cases to be filed, but Beshear’s order bans execution of eviction judgments. He acknowledged that some renters are “gaming the system . .. but are there people out there that are suffering because of this virus or its economic impact that we can’t allow to be kicked out on the street? Yes.”
  • Muncie McNamara, whom Beshear fired as unemployment insurance director, told legislators that during the early-spring crush of jobless claims, the Beshear administration approved thousands that should have been investigated, until the U.S. Department of Labor “got wind that we were doing that and told us that we had to stop.” He “also said the unemployment insurance system wasn’t technologically prepared when Beshear in March offered the jobless aid to people who wouldn’t normally qualify such as independent contractors, ahead of the federal government taking similar action,” Chris Otts reports for WDRB.
  • Beshear replied that it’s not unusual for a fired official to make “big allegations” that don’t pan out. “I believe here we have somebody who, their relationships certainly got messy by the end, but it appears that the termination was valid and they are not kind of exhibiting some of these same things that we have seen in the past. My understanding is that everything that was raised by that individual as they were leaving was addressed.”
  • Regarding a data breach that McNamara said he reported, Beshear said McNamara forwarded” an email to people who are getting thousands of emails, and then went home. If you are the head of something, you’ve got a bigger obligation than that.” Still, he said the pending inspector general’s report on the data breach will “show a number of people in leadership positions should have done more. And we’re going to make sure that we correct that and we’re going to make sure we are transparent about it.”
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