Coronavirus numbers have plateaued; Beshear says vaccines are the tool to prevent another increase, and to relax restrictions

State Dept. for Public Health graph, adapted by Ky. Health News; to enlarge, click on it.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Declaring that the pandemic had reached a threatening plateau in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said vaccinations are the way to keep the curve from turning upward — and be free of many of the emergency restrictions he has imposed.
“We’ve always gone from a plateau to an increase,” Beshear said at an afternoon news conference. “It doesn’t have to happen this time. Every other time we’ve had a plateau, we haven’t had a vaccine. So let’s use the tools we have. Let’s make sure that that we can get this done.”
Beshear began the day by announcing he would stop restricting capacity and hours of almost all business and other activities once about 900,000 more Kentuckians have been vaccinated for the coronavirus, for a total of 2.5 million.
State Department for Public Health table

Using vaccines as incentives to lift restrictions in a month or so was just part of Beshear’s messaging. He also made a plea for people between 40 and 60, saying that age group is “getting really sick” from the variant first identified in the United Kingdom and named B.1.1.7.

Beshear said the state has detected 153 coronavirus cases caused by mutated “variants of concern,” and all but three were the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now dominant in the U.S. That is discovered by sequencing of the genomes of the viruses, and Kentucky ranks near the bottom in percentage of cases sequenced.
Asked by Kentucky Health News if it is important for Kentucky to do more sequencing, and what is the state doing about it, Health Commissioner Steven Stack said more is needed, but it’s not certain how much, because it’s an expensive process, requiring three days of work on each specimen, using complex bioinformatics, and all three vaccines protect well against all variants for severe illness and death.
“The whole nation, including Kentucky, is on this shared journey of  ‘Just what does a more robust surveillance system look like?'” he said. “And what is the reasonable risk and return rate on how much of it to do where we get enough benefit to justify all the cost and effort?”
Kentucky native Sam Baker of Axios explains the threat of variants: “The more widely a virus can spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate. If the U.S. and ultimately the world don’t vaccinate a sufficient percentage of the population, we’ll be setting ourselves up to let the virus keep spreading, and keep mutating, continuing to give us new variants that will continue to pose new threats.”
Vaccine goal connected to capacity restrictions: Beshear said the 2.5-million vaccination goal could be reached in as little as three and a half weeks, but will likely take between four and six.  He said the state will continue to require facial coverings in indoor public spaces because of the variants.
“This is how we win the war against Covid,” he said at the afternoon briefing. “The crisis is not over.”
He and Stack were asked if a goal of 2.5 million people (70% of the population now eligible for a vaccine) was a safe goal since that means only 56% of the total population would be vaccinated, and experts say we need 75% or more to reach herd immunity
They said it is. Beshear said the mask mandate will still be in place, and Stack said most of the places where capacity limits will be lifted are places that are not frequented by those under the age of 16.
“This is a big deal. This is our exit strategy from Covid-19,” Stack said.
Beshear said 73% of Kentuckians 70 and older, and 61% of those 60 to 69, have received at least one dose of a vaccine. He urged Kentuckians aged 40 to 59 to get vaccinated since only 35% of those 40-49 and 43% of those 50-59 have received at least one shot.
“We need to pick that up,” he said. “Those age groups are getting really sick under the U.K. variant. Remember, we can’t be indifferent to this virus. It’s time if you’re in those age groups to sign up.”
Daily numbers: The percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the past seven days was 3.16%. That’s the highest its been since March 19, when it was 3.4%. This rate has gone up three days in a row.
The other evidence of a plateau was in the graph of weekly cases. Week before last, the number went up after 12 weeks of decline; last week, it declined slightly, but Beshear said it’s still on a plateau.
Beshear reported 270 new cases of the virus on Monday. The seven-day case average was 557, up 22 from Sunday, but that is likely an anomaly; last Monday only 110 cases were reported, but there was a glitch that delayed reporting of many cases until later last week.
Kentucky’s rate of daily new cases over the last seven days is 10.65 per 100,000 people, a rate 0.3 above Sunday’s. Kentucky’s rate was ranked 36th in The New York Times daily tracker. 
Counties with seven-day averages more than double the statewide rate were Harlan, 43.9 cases per 100,000; Powell, 32.4; Bath, 27.4; Allen, 26.8; Bracken, 25.8; Lawrence, 25.2; Simpson, 23.8; McCreary, 22.4; Logan, 21.6; Lewis, 21.5; and Robertson, 20.3.
Prisons: J. Michael Brown, Beshear’s executive cabinet secretary, said 6,602 inmates in state correctional facilities, or 68% of the total, have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He said 50% of prison staffers have gotten a vaccine.
He said that when at least 80% of inmates are vaccinated, the state hopes to open up visitation with people who have also been vaccinated.
In other good news, Brown said the numbers of active inmate cases had dropped to 11, far below the 628 a month ago. Staff cases dropped to 10 from 48 during the period. He said two more inmates have died from Covid-19, bringing that number up to 48. Five staff members have died from the virus.
Funeral assistance: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a Covid-19 funeral assistance program that will reimburse funeral expenses of Covid-19 victims. At, search “Covid-19 Funeral Assistance” or call 844-684-6333 (800-462-7585 for those who are deaf or hard of hearing).

Beshear reminded Kentuckians that FEMA will not call them unless they reach out to the agency first and to be wary of anyone who calls otherwise and says they are connected to this program.

State Dept. for Public Health graph, relabeled by Ky. Health News; click on it to enlarge.
To date, 6,257 Kentuckians have died of Covid-19. Seven deaths were reported Monday; one was from December and the rest were from February. All were reported by health departments; none were reported from an ongoing audit of death certificates.  The 14-day average of regularly reported deaths is down to 8.64.
Today’s fatalities include a Boone County man, 56; a Clay County woman, 95; a Harlan County woman, 67; two Jefferson County men, 45, 81; a Kenton County man, 76; and a Laurel County woman, 63.
In other pandemic news Monday:

  • Counties with 10 or more new cases were Jefferson, 51; Harlan, 31; Laurel, 12; and Daviess, 11.
  • There are 380 people hospitalized for Covid-19, with 104 in intensive care and 54 of those on a ventilator.
  • Lake Cumberland is the only hospital region that is using more than 80% of its intensive-care beds, at 86.7%.
  • In long-term care, there were four new resident cases and nine new staff cases, bringing the number of active cases to 44 residents and 68 staff. No new deaths were reported Monday. The death toll in these facilities is 2,281.
  • To see a list of vaccination sites that have openings this week, visit Thousands of spots are open across the state.
  • Among the one-fourth of Americans who don’t plan to get vaccinated, half of them “trust the advice of President Donald Trump either somewhat or a lot,” The Washington Post reports on an Economist-YouGov poll. “Trust in President Biden or Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease doctor, was in the teen percentages.”
  • After being shut down for four days to address fraud issues, the state’s unemployment office will go live again at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Because the letters with new personal identification numbers will likely not arrive by then, the state has opened a call center that will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. for the next 10 days to help people set up a new PIN. To reach the call center, call 502-564-2900.  “If you are not due to request benefits this week, please hold off on requesting a PIN via phone and wait for the letter,” Amy Cubbage, general counsel for Beshear, said in the press release.
  • Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a bill that the General Assembly passed to let the legislature call itself into session during emergencies and repeal executive orders by governors. Holcomb said such a measure is unconstitutional because it would require a constitutional amendment. The legislature, which is controlled by his fellow Republicans, could override the veto.
  • Tweaked versions of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are being tested on “dozens of Americans . . . to guard against a worrisome mutated version of the virus,” The Associated Press reports. “There’s concern that first-generation vaccines may offer less protection against a different variant that first emerged in South Africa. All the major vaccine makers are tweaking their recipes in case an update against that so-called B.1.351 virus is needed.” Some in the trials are getting third doses, while some haven’t been vaccinated at all. Stack said the tweaked versions are likely to be approved for wider use more quickly than the original versions
  • “All the things that could prolong the Covid-19 pandemic — that could make this virus a part of our lives longer than anyone wants — are playing out right in front of our eyes,” Baker writes for Axios. The pace of vaccinations is slowing, “variants are beginning to infect more kids, even as schools are on the fast track back to reopening” and “existing vaccines don’t work as well against the South African variant.”
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