By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Seeing their intensive-care units filling up with Covid-19 patients, 11 Kentucky hospital systems are requiring their staff to get vaccinated for the coronavirus, and Gov. Andy Beshear says other private employers should follow suit.
“I think that other companies should follow the lead that we’re seeing here today . . . of doing everything they can, including what was announced here today, requirements to get people vaccinated,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “We’re going to support each and every one of them that do.”
Health Commissioner Steven Stack said the 11 health-care systems have about 75% of the state’s hospital beds. Beshear said they had not reached out to every hospital in the state.
The systems are Appalachian Regional Healthcare, Baptist Health, CHI Saint Joseph Health, Ashland-based King’s Daughters Health System, Bowling Green-based Med Center Health, Norton Healthcare, Pikeville Medical Center, Morehead-based St. Claire Healthcare, St. Elizabeth Healthcare of Northern Kentucky, UK Healthcare and UofL Health. All were represented at the news conference; some had imposed the requirement already but most joined publicly on Thursday.
The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care in Kentucky hospitals is four and a half times what it was a month ago. “Just a month ago I had three Covid patients and only one in the ICU,” Pikeville CEO Donovan Blackburn said. “As of this morning, I had 43 [Covid] patients in the hospital. Over a third of them are in the ICU fighting for their life.”
The vaccine mandate for health-care workers is supported by the Kentucky Hospital Association, the Kentucky Medical Association and the Kentucky Nurses Association, which said in a joint statement that they “support hospitals and health systems amending their existing vaccine policies to require Covid-19 vaccines for their health care employees. . . . Vaccination against Covid-19 is the best tool to prevent spread of the disease, protect patients and ensure the health and well-being of the hospital workforce and all Kentuckians.”
Some employees at Baptist Health Hardin in Elizabethtown, a hospital the chain recently took over, staged a protest of the mandate. Beshear the “courageous” move by the hospitals will make him think again about a similar requirement for state-run hospitals.
Few long-term-care and senior-living facilities have mandated coronavirus vaccinations, though the state ranks low in immunization of those staffs. But associations representing the facilities issued a statement saying they are “expecting health-care workers to initiate” vaccinations no later than Sept. 15.
Beshear also called for local leaders to do all they can to encourage people to get vaccinated, citing as an example Matt South, chair of Metcalfe County’s industrial board, who closed an economic-development announcement with Beshear this week by promoting vaccination.
Beshear quoted South as saying: “I have two grandkids, one seven year old and one two year old, and they can’t take this vaccine that’s been provided for us. And that scares me. So please get the vaccine for my grandkids and for yours.”
Beshear said South is a registered Republican who was speaking to friends, with whom “it may be a hard conversation to have. These are folks that might change their opinion on him locally. But he stepped up and he made a statement on the biggest of stages in his community in a very personal way to push these vaccines. We need more leadership like this.”
Daily numbers: The governor’s pleas came as the state’s rates of new coronavirus cases, Covid-19 hospitalizations and percentage of Kentuckians testing positive from the virus keep are surging.
On Thursday, the state reported its second consecutive day of coronavirus cases above the 2,000 mark, 2,217, with 478, or 21.6 percent, of those in Kentuckians 18 and younger. Stack said early indications are that young people are more susceptible to the much stronger Delta variant.
Nationwide, Covid-19 cases among children and teens are up 84% in one week, Stack said. Beshear said, “This ought to be setting up alarm bells, everybody. Kids are not proxies for political battle.”
Beshear said cases in Kentucky youth increased about fourfold between June and July, going from 1,197 to 4,165 in those 18 and younger and from 534 to 2,092 in those under 12, who aren’t eligible for vaccines yet.
The rate for new cases over the last seven days is 36.06 per 100,000 residents. Counties with more than double that rate are Floyd, 83.5; Clay, 82.6; Hart, 81.1; Webster, 74; and Laurel, 73.3.
The share of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the last seven days is 10.27%. It has risen every day for six weeks.
Kentucky hospitals reported 939 Covid-19 patients Thursday, with 282 of them in intensive care and 108 of those on a ventilator. Between March 1 and Aug. 4, 92.3% of cases, 91.4% of hospitalizations, and 88.7% of deaths were in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, the state says.
“Our beds and our ICU beds are full of unvaccinated individuals,” said Hollie Harris Phillips, president and CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare.
On Thursday, two of the state’s 10 hospital readiness regions were using at least 80% of their intensive-care beds: the easternmost region (from Lee to Pike counties) and Lake Cumberland, 84.6% and 93.3% respectively.
Beshear said hospital capacity is a key metric he will use to determine any emergency mandates he might issue. He said the state must not let its hospitals be overrun with Covid-19 patients and keep others from getting care.
The state reported four new Covid-19 deaths on Thursday, bringing the toll to 7,366.
Kentuckians are getting vaccinated at a faster rate, though it pales in comparison to the number of new cases. Over the last seven days, the state has averaged 9,865 shots per day, 30% more than the previous seven days, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data in The Washington Post
Still, only 46% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. Almost 53% of Kentuckians have received at least one dose of a vaccine; among those 18 and older, the rate is 64%.
Stack again pointed out that public-health strategies to slow the spread of the virus continue to work, including masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, staying home when you are sick, and getting tested — but the way to get back to our normal lives and not have to do these things is to get vaccinated.
“Vaccines are the exit strategy,” he said, adding, “We treat this virus casually and cavalierly at our own peril. We can’t afford to do that. Getting vaccinated and getting all of us vaccinated is essential.”
He said the vaccines have been proven safe with immunization of nearly 1.6 billion people worldwide, but alluded to the possibility that continued spread could lead to a variant that could circumvent vaccines.
“We know for a fact, this virus is dangerous and becoming more dangerous the longer it has the opportunity to spread,” he said. “When you look at the relative risks of the disease and the vaccines, there is no debate, there is no uncertainty. Being vaccinated is hands down the far better route for all of us.”
Beshear announced an incentive to encourage state Executive Branch employees to get vaccinated, giving them an extra vacation day for proof of getting at least one dose of a vaccine. The employees already get up to two hours off to get vaccinated, and time to recuperate from any side effects.