Kentucky reporting new cases of COVID-19 at levels not seen since March

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Kentucky is poised to report its fourth consecutive week of rising COVID-19 cases, the overwhelming majority of which are driven by unvaccinated people, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday.

“We believe that on Monday we are going to be in another week of increasing cases,” the governor said from the state Capitol. Cases began rising again in late June after two months of consecutive decline.

In Kentucky, where roughly half the state is at least partially vaccinated, over 95% of the more than 61,000 new coronavirus cases from March 1 to July 21 were among unvaccinated people, the governor announced. Likewise, 92% of the 3,100 coronavirus-related hospitalizations and 89% of the 447 people who died of coronavirus were either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.

The more contagious Delta variant is driving an increase in cases and the statewide positivity rate, which rose above 6% on Wednesday for the first time since late February. On Tuesday, the state reported 1,054 new cases of the virus — the highest single-day increase since March 11, Beshear said. On Wednesday, the state reported 963 new cases.

For the first time since he lifted the statewide mask mandate and repealed capacity restrictions in early June, Beshear said on Thursday that he will not shy away from reinstituting those rules if the spread of the virus continues to gain momentum.

“We’re not going to be afraid to make the tough decision if it’s merited,” he said, again noting that the solution to stemming spread is for more people to get vaccinated.

Ten counties are in the red, the state health department’s highest classification signaling a severe level of community spread. There were none in the red on July 1.

Kentucky had 10 counties in the COVID-19 red zone as of July 22, 2021. There were none on July 1.
Kentucky had 10 counties in the COVID-19 red zone as of July 22, 2021. There were none on July 1.

Department for Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack advised that those red counties consider postponing any large events until spread recedes, to opt for gathering with others outside instead of indoors, and for leaders and public health officials to double down their efforts to vaccinate their populations. He also recommended at-risk people take additional steps to avoid the virus.

“Medically vulnerable [people] should try to avoid gathering with unvaccinated folks,” Stack said. “Even if you’re vaccinated, if you are around a lot of unvaccinated folks, you’re increasing your risk of being around someone with a very high viral load . . . and being one of those unlucky few who does get hurt even though you’re vaccinated.”

Due to the escalating risk of community spread, in light of the state’s low vaccination rate, Beshear on Monday once again recommended that fully-vaccinated people working in high-risk environments, like retail and hospitality jobs, and those at-risk because of pre-existing health conditions, don a mask in indoor public settings.

“The more people you come in contact with, the more exposure you are likely to have, so we believe at this point it is a smart idea,” Beshear said, noting that full vaccination is still very effective at preventing serious illness, even against the Delta variant.

When Beshear lifted the statewide mask mandate earlier this summer, he recommended that unvaccinated people continue to wear a mask in public settings. That guidance still stands, though there are few ways to enforce it.

The governor on Thursday again took to dire warnings in an effort to convince the other half of the population to get their shots: “If you’re unvaccinated, this is the deadliest form of [COVID-19] that we’ve ever seen.”

Kentuckians under the age of 40 continue to rank as the least vaccinated age group: 46% of people ages 30-39 and 36% of 18- to 29-year olds are vaccinated, compared with 65% of people ages 50-64 and 83% of those older than 65, according to the state Department for Public Health.