Issuing another plea for Kentuckians to get vaccinated as COVID-19 tightens its grip on the state, Gov. Andy Beshear said Kentucky has seen 38 straight days of a rising positivity rate, which hit 9.77% on Monday.
The last time the statewide rate of Kentuckians testing positive reached Monday’s level was late January, before vaccines were widely available. Kentucky reported 1,052 new cases of coronavirus on Monday after ending its fifth consecutive week of escalating cases.
“We have the most cases now in Kentucky since before the vaccine was readily available. We can completely stop it by getting vaccinated,” the governor said in a coronavirus update from the state Capitol. “If you’ve not gotten vaccinated, you are preventing us from getting back to normal.”
Though the state’s level of community spread is worsening, Kentucky is reporting a rise in vaccinations. In the last three days, 22,663 shots were administered, Beshear said. Last week, nearly 41,000 people were vaccinated, compared with the roughly 81,000 doses administered over the last month. Roughly 52% of the state is at least partially vaccinated, according to the state Department for Public Health. There are 796 people hospitalized with the virus statewide — up from 211 people a month ago. Of those, 250 people are in intensive care and 98 are on a ventilator.
Beshear personalized his call for vaccinations on Monday, asking those who’ve already made the choice to get their shot to talk to people in their life who haven’t.
“Just about everybody who will listen to me has gotten vaccinated. I need every single Kentuckian who’s gotten vaccinated to talk to somebody who hasn’t,” he pleaded. “If you haven’t had that tough conversation yet, I really need you to now. You might be the only person that they listen to.”
As new cases surge around the commonwealth, Beshear has so far stopped short of enacting another statewide mask mandate, though he has recommended that people resume wearing masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. On Monday, he and Cabinet for Health and Family Services Sec. Eric Friedlander announced that all employees and contractors at state-run health care facilities such as veterans nursing homes must be fully vaccinated by October 1.
“We’ve seen it really attacks in [long-term care] facilities and congregate settings. We need to do more,” Friedlander said. More than 81% of residents in Kentucky’s long-term care facilities are vaccinated compared with roughly 49% of staff — the eighth lowest rate nationwide, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Staff can claim exception for religious or medical reasons, but any employee who refuses vaccination will be tested for the virus at least twice weekly, Friedlander said. Universal masking is also required in those facilities, even among the fully-vaccinated.
Hospitals mandating vaccines, schools not requiring universal masking
Med Center Health in Bowling Green became one of the first hospital systems in Kentucky last week to require employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. So far this week, Norton Healthcare and Baptist Health have also adopted the mandate for their staff. In a statement Monday, a Baptist Health Lexington spokeswoman said 65-70% of the health care system’s nearly 23,000 employees are already vaccinated.
“Baptist Health is rolling out a plan to require its remaining employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, due to the sharp rise in cases due to the Delta variant,” Ruth Ann Childers said in an email. “Details of the plans are still being shared with staff and the Baptist Health Medical Group. More details will be released publicly later this week.”
Though Beshear and Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack have recommended K-12 school district enforce universal masking for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status, some districts have already decided against the recommendation, including Rockcastle, Wayne, Whitley, Carter and Harlan county public school systems, opting to leave the decision up to individual families, instead. Fayette County Public Schools has yet to formally decide.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the state is experiencing what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, necessitating the need for universal masking indoors, federal and state health agencies agree.
“Our recommendation is as clear as it can be: school systems should mandate universal masking,” Beshear said Monday. “Every public health official is telling every Kentucky school system that they need universal masking and some school systems are saying no. That means they are doing it in contradiction of all public health advice.”