As pandemic keeps trending down, some school districts make masks optional; the governor says they shouldn’t be doing that

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

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As the state’s coronavirus infection rate keeps falling, and some school districts are making masks optional, Gov. Andy Beshear strongly urged them to keep universal mask mandates in place, cautioning that removing the requirement could “pop these numbers back up.”

“If you really want to stay in school, keep them on until we are in a better place,” Beshear said at his weekly Covid-19 news conference.

The Hardin County schools, a large district, told Louisville’s WDRB that masks are optional there this week because the county’s seven-day infection last week rate fell below an average of 50 daily cases per 100,000 residents, a marker the district set at the start of the school year.

The county’s current rate is 34.9, which leaves it in the state’s red category, which has a bottom threshold of 25. Beshear said districts should not consider making masks optional even if they are in orange, for 10 to 25: “Certainly I would not do it in the orange and try to get to the green or at least the yellow.” Thirty-four counties are in the orange category; 85 remain in red.

Hardin schools spokesman John Wright said, “We are still contact tracing, so if your student is not wearing a mask and he or she is a contact of a person who’s turned into a positive case of Covid, then there’s still protocols in place: either the test-to-stay option, or symptom-monitor, or you can quarantine.”

Wayne County, which has an infection rate of 19 per 100,000, also made masks optional for this week. Several school districts in Western Kentucky are re-evaluating their mask mandates, since many of the counties in the region are in the orange category, Shamarria Morrison reports for WPSD.

In August, when most districts did not require masks and some early-starting districts had outbreaks of the virus, the Democratic governor issued a mask mandate, but the Republican legislature stripped him of that power.

Beshear said the Department of Education and his Department for Public Health both believe that every Kentucky school should require universal masking because it keeps children in school by preventing outbreaks of the virus; it protects the immunocompromised and children who are at higher risk of getting the virus while in school; and it protects teachers and staff.

Further, Beshear noted that the virus is easily spread in schools because they have large groups of people indoors with low rates of vaccination and that most of the school buildings are poorly ventilated.

Chart by state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, adapted by Kentucky Health News; click on it to enlarge.

Daily report: Beshear said he was encouraged by Monday’s Covid-19 report because most of the metrics were down. “In today’s report, what we are going to see is just about everything is moving in the right direction and actually at a speed – the decrease in cases and in hospitalizations, ventilator and ICU use – that is significant,” he said. “It is a real trend, it’s a positive trend. It has not plateaued. It is moving downward, which is reason for optimism. But our deaths, which trail cases and hospitalizations, ICUs and ventilators, are still very high.”

Beshear reported 678 new coronavirus cases Monday, lowering the seven-day average to 1,758. On Friday, the last day reports were issued, it was 1,943.

Beshear said last week’s drop in cases brought the state below the high numbers of cases it was seeing during the fall and winter surge.

“If we continue to see these numbers come down at the rate that they are, we will be in a much better place within a month or so,” he said. “But the trick, the thing we’ve got to work towards is making sure we can keep it down and not see another surge again.”

The share of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the last seven days is 7.36%, which Beshear called “a significant drop” from last week’s average of about 8%. Again, he cautioned that it’s still too high, noting that 5% was once the worrisome threshold.

Hospital numbers are also showing a strong downward trend, Beshear said. Hospitals reported 1,193 Covid-19 patients, down 44 from Friday; 337 intensive-care patients, down 36; and 219 on mechanical ventilation, down 20.

Eight of the state’s 10 hospital regions are using at least 80% of their intensive-care-unit capacity. The Northern region has the highest ICU use, at 98.63%, followed by Lake Cumberland (94.74%) and Barren River (94.25%).

From March 1 to Oct. 12, 84.9% of Covid-19 cases, 91.4% of Covid-19 hospitalizations and 82.8% of Covid-19 deaths in Kentucky have been among those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, said a news release from Beshear’s office.

Kentucky’s seven-day infection rate ranks ninth among the states, one slot higher than Friday, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by The New York Times. 

The state reports Kentucky’s seven-day infection rate to be 31.67 cases per 100,000 residents. Counties with rates more than double that rate are Owsley, 100.3; Powell, 87.8; Cumberland, 82.1; Grayson, 66.5; Jackson, 65.4; and McLean, 65.2.

Since Friday, the state recorded 103 more Covid-19 deaths, 31 on Monday. Beshear said nine of those were people in their 40s. The death toll is 9,396.

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, 84, died Monday from complications related to Covid-19. Powell was fully vaccinated but had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that can reduce the ability to fight infection.

Following a presidential proclamation, Beshear directed that flags in all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset on Friday, Oct. 22 in Powell’s honor, and encouraged others in the state to join the tribute.

Vaccinations: In a story about Powell’s death, Phillip Bump of The Washington Post analyzes recent CDC data that again shows the benefits of being vaccinated for protection against new infection and death from the coronavirus. However, the study also shows that the incidence of Covid deaths among those 80 and over was nearly as high as the incidence among the unvaccinated age 50 to 64.

In an article headlined “Colin Powell’s death is a reminder that vaccination is about every person, not just one person,” Bump writes, “The reason that health experts advocate vaccination is, in part, because it offers increased protection to individuals both from infection and death. But that, to some extent, is the icing on the cake. The broader advantage in widespread vaccination is that the virus has far less ability to spread, given how well protected the vaccinated are against contracting the virus. This is the goal of reaching herd immunity, creating a situation in which the virus can’t spread because it can’t find hosts without antibodies prepared to fight it. When the United States achieves herd immunity, 84-year-olds with preexisting conditions will be better protected against death simply because they will be at much lower risk of contracting the virus.”

The Post reports that Kentucky administered 14,369 doses of a vaccine in the last week, a 11% increase over the week before. So far, more than 2.7 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose of a vaccine, amounting to 72.9% of the eligible population, 12 and older.

State Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack provided updates on the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine boosters, noting that a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee has recommended the same recommendations for the Moderna vaccine as they did for Pfizer’s, which includes people 65 and older, adults who are at high risk for severe Covid and those who work at jobs with increased exposure risk.

The same committee recommended all adults who got the J&J vaccine to get a booster at least two months after their initial vaccination.

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC‘s Martha Raddatz on “This Week” that given the data provided to a Food and Drug Administration advisory group, which recently recommended a Johnson & Johnson booster shot, the J&J Covid-19 vaccine likely should have been a two-dose vaccine to begin with, The Hill reports.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet Oct. 20-21 to discuss the boosters.

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