Gov. Beshear: Kentucky Reaches COVID-19 Record-Highs

Aug 24, 2021
J. Tyler Franklin

Kentucky’s health care facilities face staff and space shortages as the delta variant causes COVID-19 cases to skyrocket. 

On Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear reported the pandemic’s highest number of hospitalized patients, statewide – 1,893. The state also reached record high numbers for residents in intensive care units, 529, and hooked up to ventilators, 301.

“Here we are, at a time when we have vaccines, when we know that masks work, with our third highest week of cases ever, and the highest positivity,” Beshear said. “COVID is burning through our population here in Kentucky.”

Steve Haines is the nursing director of critical care services at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center in Danville. He described the latest wave of the pandemic as horrific.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

The pandemic has never been so hard on Tennessee children as it has been the last few weeks. Cases surpassed the previous high set in the winter surge, and hospitals are feeling the pinch.

The 7-day average for school-age is now close to 1,400 new cases a day, with nearly 16,000 new infections statewide in 5-18 year-olds over the last two weeks, according to state data.

At this point, nearly a third of all new cases are among Tennessee kids 18 and younger — also a record for the pandemic.

Pediatric hospitalizations still represent a tiny fraction of the overall totals, which are climbing every day. But already children’s hospitals, which have less flexibility than adult hospitals, are having to make space for COVID patients.

Stephanie Wolf

The Kentucky Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a lower court shouldn’t have blocked new laws that limit Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency powers during the pandemic. The order is not an overall ruling on their constitutionality, though.

Beshear filed a lawsuit in February after the state legislature passed several measures limiting his emergency powers, including a bill restricting the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless renewed by the legislature, and one allowing businesses and schools to ignore state emergency regulations as long as they follow CDC guidelines.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments over the case earlier this summer.

The decision means Beshear’s challenge to those laws will go back to Franklin Circuit Court, with an order for the lower court to no longer block the laws from going into effect. The court had put a temporary injunction on the laws.

Sumner County Schools/via Facebook

Tennessee may risk federal civil rights inquiries if the state continues on its current track, allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates for no reason at all. The U.S. Department of Education has put eight states on notice that their current guidelines conflict with federal policy meant to offer a safe, in-person learning environment.

In a memo, Secretary Miguel Cardona says his department may “initiate a directed investigation if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions.” He says the department will also respond to complaints from parents of students “who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”

LRC Public Information

Former Democratic state Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville died Friday morning after a battle with COVID-19.

Known for his colorful suits and blazers, Yonts was an attorney who represented House District 15, including Muhlenberg County and part of Hopkins County from 1997 to 2016.

Yonts had been in critical condition and in the ICU for two weeks and had recently been placed on a ventilator, according to a Facebook post from his daughter Ellen Yonts Suetholz.

“It has taken a toll on him and the hospital did everything possible to prevent this from happening but as he remains critical, it was the only option,” she wrote.

J. Tyler Franklin

Kentucky nursing home administrators are worried that a new federal mandate for their employees to get vaccinated will lead to a worker shortage.

President Joe Biden announced plans on Wednesday to withhold Medicaid and Medicare funding from nursing homes that don’t require their employees to get the shot.

Betsy Johnson, president of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, said nursing home industry leaders strongly support their workers getting vaccinated, but many employees don’t want to.

“Our health care workers are human beings too. They are influenced by things they see on social media, family members, misinformation, political debates about COVID-19,” Johnson said.

Facebook/Warren County Public Schools

A federal judge temporarily blocked Gov. Andy Beshear’s mask mandate for K-12 schools Thursday, saying the executive order violates laws passed by the General Assembly this spring that limited the governor’s emergency powers. 

“The Executive Branch cannot simply ignore laws passed by the duly-elected representatives of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Therein lies tyranny,” Judge William Bertelsman wrote in his opinion.

The ruling means private schools will not have to require masks. However, a separate mask mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education means masks are still required in public schools.

Bertelsman sided with two Northern Kentucky parents, Jason and Karen Oswald, whose children attend St. Joseph Elementary School, a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Covington. The Oswalds claim Beshear violated their First Amendment right to freedom of religion when he instituted the mandate.

The spike in COVID-19 cases that’s creating renewed stress on health care systems across the nation is causing dangerous staffing shortages in hospitals across Kentucky.

In his press briefing Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear said there are at least 21 hospitals in Kentucky with a significant shortage of staff. 

One of the hospitals that took part in the briefing was Baptist Health Hardin in Elizabethtown.

“We are no different than any other facility in the state of Kentucky. We are facing staffing challenges amidst rising patient volumes," said Sharon Wright, Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer at Baptist Health Hardin. "Many of our staff are quarantined from COVID exposure. Some have retired. Some have resigned and left health care entirely.”

As millions of children head back to classrooms, parents are trying to track mask mandates and other COVID-19 school safety protocols. Most U.S. parents support mask mandates in schools, but are against vaccine requirements for eligible students, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds.

Opinions on masks and vaccines

Stephen Jerkins | WPLN (file)

Hospitalizations just keep climbing in Tennessee. The state is nearing 2,500 patients with COVID. And administrators know the worst is likely yet to come with new infections still surging and nearly 5,500 new cases confirmed on Wednesday alone.

Hospitals in Tennessee are already — in effect — full. Nurse Jerusha Robinson works at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where the stream of patients is constant.

“Especially with our COVID patients, we know when we have someone who moves from our ICU to our stepdown unit, very shortly after, we’re going to get another ICU patient who is just as sick as that patient or even more sick,” she said Wednesday after her overnight shift.

The limiting factor keeping hospitals from being able to handle more patients, at the moment, is not the number of beds — it’s the number of nurses. And COVID patients often require more attention. For example, those near death on an ECMO machine that oxygenates their blood have to have their own dedicated nurse.

The head of Warren County Public Schools is telling employees to be prepared for the possibility of a return to virtual learning.

There’s a large number of students in quarantine and many vacant staff positions across the system. 

Warren County School District spokeswoman Lauren Thurmond said the district currently has 1,649 students in quarantine. That's nine-percent of the student population.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

During the height of the previous COVID-19 surge in January 2021, Norton Children’s Hospital saw up to three COVID-positive pediatric patients in total. One of those cases was serious enough to send to the ICU. 

Now, those numbers look different. 

“This morning, we had 11 in-patients and four ICU patients,” said Dr. Mark McDonald, medical director of Norton Children’s Hospital. “In general, each day we get three new admissions of COVID patients.” 

None of the children currently being treated for COVID-19 at Norton Children’s have been vaccinated against it, according to McDonald. He says that half of the hospitalized children are 12-years-old or younger and half are older than 12.

Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

A joint legislative committee labeled the state’s mask mandates for K-12 schools and childcare centers as “deficient” Tuesday, signaling intent from lawmakers to undo the requirements when they return to Frankfort in January.

The administrative regulation review subcommittee voted 5-2 along party lines to mark each mandate as deficient. The vote is largely symbolic, and the mandates will remain in place for now. 

Before the vote on the K-12 mask mandate, the committee gave Kentucky Board of Education chair Lu Young and Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass the opportunity to withdraw or defer the regulation. Both declined.

The votes followed hours of public testimony.

Lisa Autry

At a time when the Delta variant has led to a spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is urging those in his home state to “overcome skepticism” about the vaccine.

The Republican leader promoted vaccinations during a stop in Butler County on Tuesday.

As a polio survivor, McConnell said he's perplexed why more Americans aren’t rolling up their sleeves. 

Speaking in Morgantown, the GOP lawmaker noted it took 70 years to find two vaccines for polio compared to the mere months it took to get three vaccines effective against COVID-19.  

He stressed the solution to ending the pandemic is right in our hands. 

"We have the vaccine now," stated McConnell. "We have the solution.”

Ryland Barton

A Republican lawmaker has filed a bill to ban mask mandates at Kentucky public schools and universities as the coronavirus continues to surge across the state and nation.

The proposal, filed Monday, comes days after the Kentucky Board of Education passed an emergency regulation requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in K-12 schools. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued his own executive order mandating masks in schools last week.

All of Kentucky’s public colleges and universities are requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors and urging people to get vaccinated.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican from Marion and sponsor of the bill, didn’t return requests for comment on Tuesday.