Beshear calls for universal masking in schools, following CDC; Stack calls Kentucky ‘horribly inflamed’ with coronavirus

Kentucky Health News graph, based on state’s initial, unadjusted daily reports; click on it to enlarge.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Gov. Andy Beshear and Health Commissioner Steven Stack updated the state’s mask guidance Thursday to call for universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status, following new federal guidance.
Beshear tacitly acknowledged that the advice is controversial: “Now, I know that people are tired. I’m tired, too. I know that people are frustrated. I’m frustrated too. We’re strong enough to do this. We are resilient enough to do this. And we are compassionate enough to where we know that we have to do this.”
He said Kentuckians’ decisions about masking will be critical, due to aggressive spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant. “Places that haven’t taken steps are seeing results that we should know by now: widespread outbreaks, clusters, large amounts of quarantines,” he said at his weekly briefing.
Asked about school districts that have said they would not require universal masking, Beshear asked them to consider the science that clearly indicates such policies will limit Covid-19 cases and subsequent quarantines in both classrooms and extracurricular activities, including sports.

Beshear suggested that school districts could be liable for sickness and death if they don’t follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is based on research showing that vaccinated people can acquire the virus and spread it without having symptoms. He called that “the game changer.”
“You teach science in your classroom,” he said. “You should have to consider it when making decisions.”
Beshear said he isn’t considering a mask mandate, but would act based on how the surge in cases goes. The difference between this surge and before, he said, is that people have access to vaccines that work.
Asked if he would require state employees to get vaccinated, as some states and the federal government are doing, Beshear said he would not, but is looking at the possibility of requiring them to have regular tests, a federal alternative. Wednesday, he required all in the vicinity of others in state offices to wear a mask.
Beshear said the mask recommendations are temporary and will be removed when it is safe to do so, as he did before. He said there is a simple equation that will keep Kentuckians at work, school and play: “more people getting vaccinated, and when you need to, wear a mask.”
Without such prevention efforts, Beshear said the more contagious Delta variant will spread through unvaccinated workplaces and classrooms, disrupting education and slowing economic growth through loss of productivity and frequent quarantines.
Dept. for Public Health map, adapted by Ky. Health News; click to enlarge

Stack displayed color-coded maps that showed on June 28 there were no “red zone” counties in Kentucky, but on July 28 there were 36. Now it’s 41. A red-zone county has more than 25 daily cases per 100,000 people over seven days and is considered to be at a “critical” level for transmission of the virus.

“We have changed in the blink of an eye from a quiet, calm state to a horribly inflamed state,” said Stack. “We all know what we need to do . . . We all need to get vaccinated.”
He said that since March 1, 94.5% of Covid-19 cases, 91.8% of Covid-19 hospitalizations and 88.8% of Covid-19 deaths in Kentucky were among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people.
Local health-department director Crystal Miller also spoke at the news briefing, encouraging Kentuckians to remember the beginning of the pandemic, when her home Harrison County had the first case and everyone had the same goal and was willing to do what it takes to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“Somehow we’ve grayed those lines. We’ve gotten away from that mission,” she said. “It’s been a long 16 months. It’s been frustrating. It’s exhausting. But the difference between March 6 and today is that we have a solution. We know exactly what works: vaccines and masking.”
Stack and Miller asked Kentuckians to seek out reliable sources and trusted experts for information about the virus and the vaccines. Stack said, “Don’t look to cable [TV] sources for your medical advice, period. Don’t look to social media for your medical guidance, period. If we would do that, he said there would be no controversy or debate and we could get over this pandemic a lot faster.”
Republican pushback: Three Republicans who lead independent state agencies, and may run for Beshear’s job in 2023, said they would not enforce the Democrat’s mask mandate for state workers. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles’ chief of staff, Keith Rogers, said they “will continue to leave it up to employees to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask while at work,” Daniel Desrochers reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
State Auditor Mike Harmon said likewise Wednesday; Treasurer Allison Ball followed suit Thursday, saying: “The Treasury has a very high rate of vaccination among its employees, and the staff has been extremely responsible both in monitoring their own health, and in not placing their fellow employees at undue risk.”

Mike Wynn, a spokesman for the Legislative Research Commission, said the legislature will stick to the mask policy it implemented on May 23, which said vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask, Desrochers reports.

Beshear said he can’t discipline employees who work for separate constitutional officers, but warned that they will face a greater risk of getting sick. He said it’s more important to do the right thing than to “try to score political points,” and noted that the new-case rate in Franklin County skyrocketed this month.

“I care more about the people than my popularity,” he said. “I’ve got the backbone to do what’s right for them, and wish other people did too.”
Vaccinations: Beshear noted the slight uptick in vaccinations in Kentucky. CDC data presented by The Washington Post showed 10,048 shots were given Wednesday, the most since July 11. The seven-day average is 7,563.

“It does appear that the seriousness of the Delta variant is getting through to some folks who haven’t been vaccinated yet,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he thought the state is having success with its vaccine lottery, which held its second drawing Thursday. The winners will be announced Friday; an adult will win $1 million and five youth will get full postsecondary-education scholarships. The final set of winners will be announced Aug. 27.
Asked if the state was working on any other incentive programs to get more Kentuckians vaccinated, Beshear said they were looking at different options and noted that there were more and more private incentives being offered. “The Delta variant ought to encourage them to do more,” he said.
Daily numbers: The state reported 1,618 new cases of the virus Thursday, with 328 (20%) in people 18 and under. That raised the seven-day rolling average by nearly 100, to 1,120 — the highest in six months.
The percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the past seven days rose for the 33rd straight day, to 8.55%. Two more Kentuckians have died from Covid-19, bringing the death toll to 7,327.
The statewide rate of daily new cases over the last seven days is 23.63 per 100,000 residents, very near the “critical” level of 25. Counties with rates more than double the statewide rate are Clay, 113.4; Jackson, 82.5; Muhlenberg, 57.8; Laurel, 57.8; Letcher, 57.7; Floyd, 52.6; Webster, 51.9; and
Hopkins, 47.3.
Hospitalizations for Covid-19 continued to rise. Kentucky hospitals reported 608 patients with Covid-19, with 189 of them in intensive care and 82 of those on mechanical ventilation.
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