Beshear blames high Covid-19 case numbers in prisons on testing, but death rate among state prisoners is third in U.S.

Marshall Project chart shows virus cases and deaths in state prisons. To enlarge, click on it.

By Al Cross and Bruce Maples

Kentucky Health News
Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that Kentucky has more coronavirus cases in state prisons “sometimes look higher than other states” because “We’re committed to testing when there’s an outbreak” like the one in progress at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
But Kentucky doesn’t just have the second-highest rate of cases. It has the third-highest death rate among state prisoners from Covid-19, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that deals with criminal-justice issues and has tracked prison cases and deaths during the pandemic.
Kentucky’s reported rate of 6,418 cases per 10,000 prisoners is second only to that of Michigan, which has a rate of 6,734. Arkansas, South Dakota and Kansas also have rates above 6,000. The Marshall Project says Kentucky prisoners’ infection rate is nearly seven times that of all Kentuckians.
The Marshall Project says 46 state-prison inmates in Kentucky have died of Covid-19, a rate of 38 per 10,000. The only higher rates are in New Mexico and Nevada, which each have rounded rates of 43 per 10,000. Kentucky prisoners’ Covid-19 death rate is 3.4 times the rate for the state’s population.
The governor addressed the subject at a regular news briefing after being asked if he had any update on an virus outbreak at a prison in Lyon County. The county has two prisons, the Kentucky State Penitentiary and the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex, and both have had outbreaks.
Beshear indicated that Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown would give an update at a later briefing, but said that the state is using the same control measures it had used in outbreaks at other prisons, “to the extent the facilities allow us, of separating people by groups. I will say, that when you look at numbers in prisons, they sometimes look higher than other states, but I know why that is: We’re committed testing when there’s an outbreak. Now, I have seen others that have stopped that, but we want to know the full scale of it so that we can try to mitigate it to its fullest extent.”
Asked via email how he accounted for the state’s high death rate, Beshear’s office referred Kentucky Health News to an update Brown gave last week, which did not address the death rate. Brown said then that vaccine shipments for inmates over age 70 were scheduled for this week, and that all state correctional facilities would be distribution centers for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with timing of shots depending on supply. When Beshear was asked that day about vaccinating other inmates, especially those over 60, he said those would be vaccinated once the state had received enough of the vaccine.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said in an email that the agency “has taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates,” including recent installation of ultraviolet-light sanitizers at entrances. “We are working diligently to ensure all interested DOC staff receive a vaccination,” and 1,845 employees and contractors have received a shot, or 43% of the total 4,288 employees and contractors, and another 338 are pending.

The department reports 496 active cases among inmates and 35 among staff at its prisons, 470 and 22 at the penitentiary and 18 and 8 at the other Lyon County prison. Those numbers have declined in the last few days, but the county still has the nation’s highest seven-day rate of new cases, as it has for more than a week, according to The New York Times.

In the state at large, the pandemic continues to wane slowly, but shows signs of entering a plateau. The statewide rate of new cases rose for the first time in weeks, though the increase was small: 0.11, to 12 cases per 100,000 residents.
Counties with rates more than double the statewide rate on the state’s daily report are Lyon, 150; Simpson,75.4; Knox, 42.7; Trimble, 32; Hopkins, 28.1; Jackson, 25.7; Whitley, 25.6; and Bell, 25.2.
On the positive side, the percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the last seven days dropped .04 percentage point, to 2.93%.
State Dept. for Public Health graph, relabeled by Ky. Health News; to enlarge, click on it.
Beshear announced that the most recently completed official reporting week, Monday through Sunday, was the 10th straight week with declining new-case numbers. He said the decline was longer and slower than other states because his actions in late 2020 made the year-end spike in cases less than elsewhere.

The state reported 294 new cases, 102 fewer than last Monday. That lowered the state’s seven-day average of cases to 650, down 15 from Sunday.

The governor said the state’s vaccination programs continue to hit his goal of using at least 90% of the weekly vaccine doses sent to the state, with the latest rate being 93.7%. To date, 1,186,538 Kentuckians have had at least their first shot. Beshear noted that the priority list expanded Monday to cover anyone over 50 and persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Beshear said that for long-term-care facilities, “The vaccine has changed everything.” He shared a video from Lexington’s Sayre Christian Village showing vaccinated family members visiting with loved ones in person. The video closed with a resident looking into the camera and saying “If you haven’t got the shot, please do. It’s important — especially for older people.”

The state added 61 more deaths to its list of Covid-19 fatalities, including 50 from the ongoing audit of death certificates going back to October, bringing its toll to 5,799. Beshear said the good news was that none of the regularly reported and listed deaths occurred this month.

The 11 fatalities were a Carter County woman, 91; a Crittenden County man, 81; two Franklin County men, 67 and 84; a Fulton County woman, 88; a Harrison County man, 82; a Hickman County man, 87; a Kenton County woman, 79; a Letcher County woman, 85; a Marshall County woman, 91; and a Perry County woman, 89.

Kentucky hospitals reported 434 Covid-19 patients, the fewest since August. Of those, 95 were in intensive-care units, and 63, or almost two thirds, were on ventilators. The share of ICU patients who are mechanically ventilated is the highest since Kentucky Health News began tracking it five months ago.

Only one of the state’s 10 hospital regions, Lake Cumberland, had more than 80% of its ICU beds in use, and few of that 84% were Covid patients.

In other pandemic news Monday:

  • Because too few people are signing up for vaccinations in Lexington, the local health department has made them available to anyone over 18, the department announced. Spokesman Kevin Hall “attributes the waning demand to the state’s influx of immunization sites, many of which have come online this month,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.
  • Beshear said the state is concerned about possible spread of the virus from spring-break revelry in Florida. “If you’re not going to be careful, don’t send your kid back [to school] right away,” but use remote schooling, he said.
  • Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles announced that he is vaccinated. Quarles, a Republican who is expected to run for governor in 2023, had turned down an offer of the vaccine from Beshear (who says he wants Republicans to set an example), saying he would get a shot when it was his turn. Quarles, 37, said in a press release, “With food and agriculture being included in the industry groups in Phase 1C, I took the vaccine this weekend. While taking the vaccine is a personal choice, I encourage Kentuckians to take it when their place in line comes.”
  • Southwest Virginia “has some of the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the state, despite national surveys showing ­rural Republicans are the most reluctant to receive it,” The Washington Post reports. “The area’s robust public health infrastructure, which for years has delivered typical flu vaccines in mass settings, is part of the reason. So was the wake-up call that followed Thanksgiving — a post-holiday surge in cases so high that two hospitals brought in refrigerated trucks because their morgues were overflowing.” The story notes that the region is “geographically and culturally closer to Kentucky and Tennessee than to Virginia’s power centers
    in Richmond and suburban Washington.”
  • AstraZeneca’s vaccine is 79% effective against symptomatic disease and 100% effective against severe disease and hospitalization, CNN reports. The company plans to apply for emergency-use authorization in the first half of April. UPDATE, 3/23: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, said early Tuesday that the firm may have left out a week of unfavorable data. “Scientists are describing the reaction as unusual and unprecedented for the agency,” The Washington Post reports.
Previous Article
Next Article